Drones Are Now Inspecting NYC’s Famed Steam System
The steam that keeps New Yorkers warm through the winter rolls through a labyrinth of pipes and tubes that is a nightmare to inspect. About eight times a year, Con Edison engineers don protective gear and crawl through the boilers that keep the largest steam system in the world running, to ensure everything is tip-top. “It can be claustrophobic. You shouldn’t have a fear of heights or enclosed spaces,” says senior engineer Seth Flash.
Beyond claustrophobia, boilers are dangerous. Ten stories high and capable of producing 1.2 million pounds of steam an hour, they feature components so tall that engineers erect scaffolding to get up close. Inside, workers wearing wearing hard hats, boots, hearing and eye protection, and respirators, shuffle about like Andy Dufresne leaving Shawshank.
If ever there was a perfect use case for a drone, this is it. Con Ed thinks so too, and is testing a UAV with an LED light and HD camera that flies through system, sending live video to engineers only too happy to led a machine do the scut work.
Swiss drone-maker Flyability supplies the “collision-tolerant” UAV, a typical hovering quadcopter ensconced in a protective carbon fiber cage. That’s crucial flying around inside a boiler, where losing a propeller whacking a pipe could make retrieving the damn thing tough. The spherical armor also means inspectors can roll the drone along surfaces and even up walls, making it a not quite as cute, but more practical version of BB-8.
It’s no surprise that the drone does the job faster—in a day or two instead of a week—and cheaper than a human. Con Ed says it could save $100,000 every time the drone goes to work. The robot’s better in an emergency, too: If a boiler tube ruptures, the utility won’t have to wait for things to cool before sending in an engineer. Simply deploy a drone.
Drones will do more inspection work like this soon, because the FAA has eased restrictions on commercial UAVs. It won’t be long before you see them monitoring power lines, checking out damaged buildings, and inspecting planes hit by lightning.
Con Ed’s drone came with an experienced pilot, Flash says, but it’s simple enough that almost anyone will be able to fly it using an Android tablet. The utility hasn’t decided whether to adopt drones, but Flash says he’d buy one tomorrow if he could. After 15 years of inspecting every inch of the steam boilers by hand, he’s eager to turn the job over to a flying robot.
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