Drone Technology: The Ups and Downs of a New Application

Several months ago, I visited a firm that delivers solutions in the people moving business – namely elevators and escalators. I was there for client discussions and workshops, but what should have been an upbeat energetic session was subdued. I took the senior leader aside and asked why everyone seemed so demoralized. He explained that two elevator inspectors had fallen to their deaths while inspecting a shaft. The accident had happened at one of their Asian locations and the news had just reached them.

It touched me that a room full of technology and operations executives half a world away would feel such tangible remorse for an accident that didn’t directly affect them. Our discussion pivoted and we began an exploration of how such things may be avoided. This marked the genesis of my own initial work to understand how emerging technology may be able to save some of these lives.

Elevator inspection and maintenance is an ongoing process. The manufacturers typically seek to win the contracts to maintain their equipment. This maintenance is then monitored and governed by the city or municipal teams, who also physically inspect the elevators. In this process, depending on the country and laws, shaft inspection is typically part of the inspection or maintenance activity.

Safety is, of course, paramount, but compliance is another challenge, especially in large urban municipalities with thousands of buildings to inspect and only a handful of inspectors. A recent news report documented that nearly half of the elevators in Los Angeles have not been inspected in over a year. With close to 21,000 elevators to inspect and only 15 inspectors, the city is quickly falling behind in ensuring elevator safety and meeting certification requirements. Other cities face similar backlogs and what starts as a compliance issue will soon become a public safety issue.

Shaft inspection is a risky business. Elevator shafts are dark and dangerous places that – even with safety controls and inspection procedures – are subject to human error and unforeseen events. The question we should be asking ourselves is – is there a better way?

Drones and emerging tech to the rescue?

The modern elevator is fitted with a wealth of new technology that we don’t even see. IoT sensors feed data back to the manufacturer on running statistics, efficiency, predictive maintenance and such. Expanding that IoT ‘cloud’ around an elevator to include the shaft is a minor adjustment. Imagine a future where each elevator is installed with a cradle on top that houses a drone that can take off and land overnight and inspect the shaft using video, infrared and ultrasound. Using AI, this could be automated or guided by a remote pilot.

Safety and the intersection of emerging technologies

If all of this safety and inspection data could be made available to the inspectors in a trustable format, the inspection and certification process would be streamlined, made data dependent and would also reach a much higher level of quality than can be achieved by just a small group of overworked inspectors.

The next time you step on an elevator, ask yourself: would you rather this be a machine that was inspected once a year by a human or something that was monitored in real time by IoT, supported by an ongoing routine shaft inspection by drone technology and all that data made available and transparent to regulators.

So, when is it coming?

The pieces are all in place. Each of the technologies explored here is mature enough to support this application, today. The cost of these types of technologies is dropping on a yearly basis and making the model more and more compelling. Here, as with so many industries, the real challenge is to gain the acceptance of the regulators and inspectors.

But we see it everywhere; regulators are becoming accustomed to the pressure being applied by digital solutions and are better equipped to move quickly to absorb these types of solutions. Indeed, visionary leaders are popping up to accelerate things. But, most importantly, disruption using drone technology is more likely to be accepted when it saves lives and when those elevator inspectors get to go home every night.


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