Robert "Bob" Dahlstrom, CEO of aerial robotic systems provider Apellix, joins our podcast to explain the increasing role of drones in corrosion and coating inspections — with a particular emphasis on aboveground storage tanks (ASTs). Topics include the past, present, and future of drone technologies, as well as the recent launch of Apellix NDT as a new field services company. See below for a complete transcript.
For more information, contact: Apellix, (904) 647-4511, www.apellixndt.com
Ben DuBose: Bob, good morning. How are you?
Robert Dahlstrom: Good morning, I’m fine, thank you. Thanks for asking.
BD: Absolutely. We’re glad to have you on again. We talked to you last summer during our COVID-19 series about how things were going for your business during the pandemic. Fortunately, at least to some extent, we seem to be emerging from that in 2021. We’ll get into that on today’s podcast. Before we get into too many particulars, I want to let you lead off by explaining background on both yourself and the company. For anyone that is not familiar with Apellix, what are the services that Apellix provides as far as corrosion control, protective coatings, and the broader industry that we serve at AMPP?
RD: Sure. Thanks, Ben. Apellix is the second company I founded. The first one was an internet security software company. It’s been really fun and interesting for me to be involved in the corrosion industry. It’s just so fascinating. All the chemical compounds and coatings that are used to protect for corrosion. All the different things that are necessary. All the things that AMPP and associations like that deal with. It’s just incredible things that broaden my scope and knowledge of the world.
The way Apellix started was kind of that software background. I was painting my house, and I realized there’s got to be a better way. I thought, “Well, you could do it with a drone.” But then I’m like, “No, paint’s really heavy. Battery life doesn’t last very long.” I looked down at the ground and there was the compressor, on top of scaffolding, on top of a ladder. I used to paint houses working my way through college. I’m like, “Eureka! Keep the paint on the ground, the compressor on the ground. Pump it up an umbilical cord. With software, keep the drone, the flying computer, the right distance from the wall to apply that paint.” So I built a proof of concept that actually worked, and I started the company Apellix from there.
But what we’ve got at Apellix is kind of a holistic view of the industry. We currently in the market have a product that measures the thickness of coating, the thickness of underlying structures. UT, ultrasonic thickness measuring. DFT, dry film thickness. We’ve got this spray-painting drone, which is close to market. We’re getting ready to do some demos with some key customers of our development partner later this year. Then we have a surface cleaning drone that does the wash or cleans the surface. You can see our intent here is, when an asset is built, to be able to coat it, to clean it over time, to measure the coating over time, to potentially blast or clean or spot-do areas. Then we paint the entire structure when it needs it.
BD: One of the new developments for your company, that we’ve covered in both CoatingsPro and Materials Performance, is the launch of what’s called Apellix NDT. I want to let you elaborate on that because I led off saying that we’re going to discuss what’s new in 2021. For you guys, I know that’s certainly one of the exciting developments. We’ll also have it covered in our print issues in April and May, I believe. We’re going to have lots of coverage on that front. As a CEO, you can obviously explain what Apellix NDT is and what services it can provide a lot better than we can. What went into that launch, and what specifically does it mean as far as potential clients and people in the industry?
RD: Thank you so much for asking about this because we’re super excited about this new offering that we’re doing. Because we have these aerial robotic systems that fly up and make contact with structures and take nondestructive measurements (NDT measurements), they’re very complicated systems at this point in time. There’s a lot of software involved. There’s a lot of onboard sensors involved. Depending on what you want, there are different components to these systems.
Our end goal is to provide these as tools to users out in the world, just like our end goal with the spray-painting drone is to supply that to the industry for people to use. We’re not going to be a service company doing that. We probably will always have a service company of some component at Apellix. We’re starting it with Apellix NDT because that is really where the learning happens. That is where the magic happens, so to speak. We can work on our facsimile of an above-ground storage tank in our backyard all day long, taking measurements and everything works perfectly. But as soon as we step into the refinery, things may not work as perfectly. Having that exposure to industry is critical, and we can’t expect industry to accept this technology if they haven’t seen it in operation. We have this aerial robotic platform that does amazing work, and we’ve done a lot of jobs with customers that are sort of one-off jobs and a lot of jobs that are pilot jobs that have a longer term to them.
What this enables us to do is have a quasi-services company, Apellix NDT, to bring our engineers, our NACE engineers, our AWS or SSPC-certified engineers, into the field with us when we go do jobs so that we can complete those engineering reports that the asset owner needs at the end of the day to make their decisions as far as what to do with their asset based on the data and information we’re giving. What this does is this takes us as a company from being a data provider, where we just went out there as roboticists and software people, to actually bringing along that subject matter expert with us that has that core expertise, so that at the end of the day we can provide a report to the asset owner saying, “Here’s our findings.” We’re specializing in areas at elevation, areas where we would use the drone because that’s where we’re able to bring a lot of value creation. We are currently limiting our scope to nondestructive testing of just the two areas: ultrasonic thickness and dry film thickness.
BD: If someone listening — be it an asset owner, a contractor, anyone involved in the value chain — wants to work with you all, how can they hire you to complete a job? What’s the process like as far as reaching out and logistically putting you in contact with these asset owners or contractors so that this can actually be used out in the field?
RD: We’ve tried to make that as easy as possible. Part of it is we’re a small team so we’re nimble, we’re agile. We’re motivated to work with companies because our goal is to get this technology out in the world. Our goal is to take Apellix NDT, prove this technology, provide the services for people as a step toward getting this service, getting these drones in the hands of people in use out in the world. It basically could just be a phone call, where you call us up.
But there are two models that we typically work under that seem to resonate with our customers. One is: Hire us for a job. That’s a day job, a couple days job, whatever it might be, where we come out, we bring our team, we do what’s needed by the asset owner or the engineering team. Then we provide the data, the report, everything at the end of the job.
The second is more longer-term, and those are the pilot projects. The example I can give there, because we’re publicly able to share it, is we’re doing a pilot project with Vopak, which is the largest terminal and tank operator in the world. They have large above-ground storage tank farms. As part of the pilot project, we’ve gone out there, we’ve taken ultrasonic thickness measurements with our drone on out-of-service tanks. What they want is the ability to out-of-service and in-service tanks. In order to do that, the safety department said, “We will allow you to fly in Class I, Div. II locations, which are the in-service tanks, which have potentially explosive materials inside them, if you put this particular technology on your drone” — basically a gas sensor, an LEL, lower explosive limit device, that’s constantly sampling the air, looking for levels of gases.
We’re in the process of implementing that now, adding that to our drone, so that when we do go out there, we’ll be able to do both in-service and out-of-service. That’s the distinction between just coming out and doing a job versus coming out, working with the company to develop the system so that it’s an optimal system that they can use. The goal at the end of this development project of this pilot project is for Vopak to then take over operations of these drones and use them in all their facilities.
BD: More broadly that just the new nondestructive testing services business, what type of feedback do you often hear when you talk to potential clients? I know you're, as you said, a relatively small company, so you guys are nimble, and obviously you're fairly involved in these conversations. What types of needs do you hear from asset owners, contractors in 2021 that they need as far as inspections? What is the feedback that you generally hear on a day-to-day basis as far as what they need help with?
RD: There’s two things. Because we’re concentrating mostly on above-ground storage tanks because we can bang them out all day, every day, the most thing we hear from that is, “Oh my god, that’s so fast. You can do that?” These drones are incredibly nimble and agile for complex geometries to just fly from location to location versus putting up scaffolding or rope or cranes or whatever it might be. That’s the type of feedback we love to hear.
We also hear, quite often, “Oh, if you can do that, then you can do this.” They’ll pick out some obscure edge-use case, which is a huge pain for them, something that they can’t necessarily do very easily. They think because we could do an above-ground storage tank, we could do that really complicated edge-use case. We have to talk them back and say, “No, that’s too complicated. We can’t do that. Maybe sometime in the future.” Setting realistic expectations with the asset owners and with the engineering firms is a critical component of what we do when we do our pre-evaluation before we even go out to do a job.
BD: You all have been doing this for a few years now. What has changed in the overall drone landscape? Have there been any refinements to your technology as you have gotten more field data over these recent years? Generally speaking, how long have you been doing this? It’s been, what, about five, six years, I think?
RD: Next month is coming up six years since we founded the company. It’s been about four years since we started actually doing some stuff. I think it was 2019 when we — no, 2017, I’m sorry — 2017 when we won the NACE Corrosion Innovation of the Year award for the nondestructive testing drone. We’ve seen a lot of development on the drone to where it was useful and very limited use cases to now where it’s useful and very complex use cases. [From] where it used to be able to only take a few measurements here and there, to where it constantly gets readings all the time. [From] where it used to be not as good as a human, to where it’s much better than a human. Then of course, the speed increases. But the complexity is a lot of it.
Part of what we’ve seen in the industry is an acceptance now that didn’t exist before. In the beginning, in the early days, like in 2017, the first thing somebody asked if you’re going to bring a drone to do nondestructive testing is, “Is it intrinsically safe?” The answer is, “No. No drone is, and no drone ever will be.” But because there are so many drone now doing visual inspections out there flying inside oil refineries and elsewhere, it makes it a lot easier for us now to go in with a drone that’s making physical contact with a structure, to take measurements, because drones have already been generally accepted.
BD: I want to switch gears and get to you know on a little bit more on a personal level. That’s something that in these Materials Performance and CoatingsPro podcasts we started doing in the past couple of months. This is new relative to the last time you came on last summer. We’re doing what we consider these rapid-fire questions to give our listeners a little more insight on the guests that we bring on and their story. It can be from the industry and it can be for your life as a whole. I just think it’s a little fun way to get to know you a little bit better. We’ll get back to drones and the overall Apellix landscape in a few minutes. But I want to focus on you a little bit right now, Bob. I’ll start with a fairly easy one. Give us someone that’s been a hero or a mentor to you.
RD: My dad.
BD: Okay. Why?
RD: He always had a positive attitude. He was always very concerned about safety. He was in aeronautics, so he was a mechanical engineer for aircraft. When I started my software company, he didn’t know anything. There were no areas of overlap, and he didn’t understand what I was doing because he doesn’t use computers. But when I started the drone company, obviously it clicked, and now he’s starting to understand what software is and what software can do. Software’s my passion. To me, drones are flying computers. Without software, they’re useless. Software is what’s making all this possible. Software is what enables the data collection, and the data is what’s valuable to the corrosion industry. Once we start gathering this data, then we can start doing all sorts of cool and amazing things.
BD: What’s something that’s your biggest pet peeve? This can be within the industry, your day-to-day business, or it can be your day-to-day life. What’s something that really gets under your skin a little bit?
RD: I hate to say it because it’s political, but it’s people that don’t wear masks.
BD: That’s fair.
RD: To me, it’s just science. It’s like if it was an alien life form that came out of your mouth when you breathed and it would hurt somebody, and all you had to do was put a piece of cloth over your mouth to prevent hurting somebody or to protect yourself from getting hurt by that alien life form. It just makes common sense. But I understand it’s political. I understand I might take some heat for that viewpoint, but that’s what it is. I have friends that don’t wear masks. I don’t feel bad about them or dislike them or anything like that. It’s just, to me, it seems to be common sense to wear a mask.
BD: It shouldn’t be political, in my opinion. One of the benefits to our industry, at least, is that, especially with CoatingsPro, we deal with a lot of contractors who happen to be used to wearing these masks a lot already because they deal with jobsites where they need to have that type of filtration. I think that’s one slight positive to our audience is that, even before the past year, we did have some people that were already familiar with the concept and a little more used to wearing those types of protections than the general public.
RD: Yes, I mentioned my dad and safety earlier because, when we’d get into the pool, when we’d get out of the pool before we’d go into the house to use the restroom or whatever, we had to dry our hands before we could flip up the light switch. Because of safety. He was very safety conscious. That’s one of the things I love about the corrosion engineer mindset. It’s all about safety. You are putting people’s lives as risk, and it is dangerous what people are doing. Having that constant mindset of safety as important is something that I admire and strive toward.
BD: I think that’s a good answer. Last one. What’s one of your hobbies? What do you do when you're not talking drones or inspection? What something that you're going to do this weekend, per se?
RD: I like to chant. It’s called Kirtan. It’s a type of music, a style of music, that’s called chanting. I love to chant. It’s fun.
BD: Let’s circle back to more corrosion related topics. That last question that we had before our little rapid-fire segment was about what’s happened over the last five, six years that Apellix has been in existence. Now I want to ask you about the future. What developments are on the horizon over the next few months? This is not so much for Apellix. I’m thinking more broadly in terms of drones and the industry. What new technologies are potentially going to emerge in the coming months or years that might further change the landscape compared to where it is now?
RD: I think it’s all about software, computers, and data and knowledge. Information that can be derived from things like visual inspections and machine learning and artificial intelligence and algorithms and that type of thing.
BD: As we wrap up with Bob Dahlstrom, CEO of Apellix, we’ve talked about the past, the current, and the future of drone-related inspections and where they can fit within the corrosion and protective coatings industry. For anyone that’s listening to this podcast and wants to get more information from Apellix or learn more about the types of services that you all provide, how can they get that? What’s the best way for them to either get more information or potentially get in touch with you or the company?
RD: Very easy. You can go to www.apellixndt.com. All of our contact info’s on there. Or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That actually broadcasts out to multiple people within our organization so that you always get a quick response there. Then our phone number, of course, is on the website.
BD: Sounds good.