Bob Dahlstrom, CEO of Apellix, recently joined our podcast for a discussion of how new drone technologies are changing the landscape of corrosion inspections.
Dahlstrom shares updates on pilot programs and other recent developments in 2020, including whether the COVID-19 pandemic could make asset owners explore alternatives to traditional field inspections. See below for a complete transcript.
[This podcast was recorded on July 7, 2020.]
Ben DuBose: Bob, good morning. How are you?
Bob Dahlstrom: I’m very well, Ben. Thank you. Good morning.
Ben: Thank you for joining us. Apellix is based out of Jacksonville, Florida, correct?
Bob: That is correct, yes.
Ben: I’ll let you give a little bit of background to our listeners about where Apellix fits into the grand scheme of corrosion control. I know you're known for software controlled aerial robotics systems. You guys utilize both tethered and untethered drones that can be used for corrosion prevention, mitigation in place of usual inspections. Just elaborate, if you could, a little bit of background on the company and where you guys potentially fit in as it pertains to the corrosion control ecosphere.
Bob: Sure. Thank you. Apellix is about a four-year-old company. We’ve been spending the majority of our time to date prospecting our precision flight control for our aerial robotics systems. What this means in the corrosion world, which is our world that we play in, is we’re able to clean a surface with a tethered drone, paint that surface or coat it, and then measure the thickness of the coating and measure the thickness of the steel over time. So we want to be able to take an asset and take care of it for its entire life cycle. We’re in development of some of those products.
The products we have in the market today are the two that do non-destructive testing — anything to measure the thickness of steel, ultrasonic thickness testing, or to measure the thickness of coatings, dry film thickness testing. We have autonomous aerial robotic systems that, once you engage the software, it’s hands-off at that point. There’s no human pilot required. It flies in, makes contact with the surface, and takes those measurements.
Of course, because it’s an aerial robotic system, it’s safer because you don’t have to put a person at elevation. It’s faster, so you can collect more data because you don’t have to move a person from place to place. It’s pretty mobile. It’s able to fly location to location around, say, a storage tank or a flare stack very quickly. It’s also, hopefully, able to gather more information and data than if a person was there because if you're a drone, basically you're a flying computer. And if you're a flying computer, you're a data-gathering machine. So we gather a depth and breadth of information all related to the condition of the asset for corrosion control and prevention and maintenance.
Ben: Let’s talk about what’s new in 2020. You mentioned that you’re a four-year-old company. You're actually an MP Corrosion Innovation of the Year Awards winner a few years back. I know with each passing year there’s new technology, there’s new things that you're integrating into your platforms. I know there was an announcement a few months ago that you were looking into pilot projects using these drones for ultrasonic wall thickness inspections. I know you've got various manufacturers that you're partnering with and looking for these pilot projects. Talk about what’s new within the last few weeks or months that’s on the horizon at Apellix.
Bob: In addition to those pilot programs for non-destructive testing, which we have engaged three large international and national companies to do work with them, the goal is to teach them how to use these robotic systems and then hand them over to them as a lease so they can operate them around the world and we would support the equipment and support them that way. But what’s new and coming out, probably quarter four this year, will be our SoftWash Drone. This has the ability to clean large industrial structures.
Our first initial target with that is going to be elevated water towers for municipalities. These 150-foot water towers, especially in the northeast United States, a lot of those get mold and mildew on the outside. Right now, to clean those, to extend the life of the coating, you have to use a lift or a JLG or a cherry picker as well as putting a person up on that lift to be able to spray the chemicals needed to coat these. So these are high-volume, low-pressure. We’re talking spraying 8 gallons per minute at about 1500 psi to be able to clean these elevated towers. As that platform continues to develop, we hope to be able to do additional type of prep work, all with relationship to eventually being able to come back after it’s been prepped and coat or paint.
As you mentioned, one of the things we’re doing is we have a joint development agreement with International Paints, AkzoNobel, to bring our spray-painting drone to market. Having the ability to clean the structure first — because we’re about nine months into a two-year development agreement with them — so when the product comes out, prior to that we’ll have a product that can already measure the coating, tell you the condition of the coating, and then another product using the same platform that will be able to clean the coatings, clean the assets. Then the spray-painting drone will come out and that will give us the whole life cycle of that asset, being able to maintain it and monitor for corrosion and prevent corrosion.
Ben: You mentioned the partnerships, the development agreements that you have with people that are potentially using your assets in the field. What type of feedback have you gotten from some of these early adopters of your technology? Have you made any refinements, for example, based on the field data that you are getting? Discuss, if you could, what you've heard from the people that are using your systems.
Bob: We have, and this is really interesting. It gets a little forward looking at some point because, what’s happening, some of these customers are large enough that they can, in some respects, set their own standards. As the industry is moving toward risk-based inspections — and we’re talking specifically here about ultrasonic thickness measurement, dry film thickness measurement. So we’re not talking about the cleaning or the coating yet. As these pilots are progressing with the non-destructive testing, they’re realizing, oh my, these industrial robotics can go in there and take a measurement per minute, 60 or 100 measurements per hour.
Whereas on an above-ground storage tank, for example, if we put a person up there as part of an API 653 or SSPC PA-2 examination, they’re maybe going to get 20 or 30 readings a day. So what does that mean for standards? What’s happening is, as this nascent field of industrial inspection, where you’re making contact with the surface — because it’s a little different than the visual inspections that have been around for quite a while, where you're flying some distance away doing a camera — these are actually physically making contact and replacing the corrosion engineer at elevation with a robotic system. Because the efficiency is there, there’s the potential that this may change the standards.
The underwriters and the asset insurers, of course, are very interested in this as well. Because the goal is to get a better understanding of the condition of that underlying asset and to make better predictions. So NDE 4.0, non-destructive examinations and evaluations, those tools that we’re able to bring with newer modern technology to help extend the life of these assets, are things that I think are really pushing the industry forward. Now, they’re just starting, but there’s a lot — it’s like a snowball rolling downhill. There’s a lot of momentum building behind it.
Ben: Do companies — and I’ll preface this by saying that I’m aware you're still in the fairly early stages of all of this — but do companies tend to understand the value equation? I’m sure there are some people that will look at the technology involved. There’s obviously a certain upfront cost that wouldn’t be there through traditional means. But the upside of the type of systems that you’re proposing is that you can recoup so much value and savings down the line because you're not having to consistently put workers in harm’s way or out in the field or travel costs. All of those types of factors.
The companies you speak with — it sounds like they have a good understanding of the value equation, that even if there’s a certain upfront technology cost, the savings (should this be successful down the line from not having to do these traditional inspections) and then of course what you're able to save by spotting these corrosion issues, the idea is that you're bringing these savings over the life cycle of the equipment or the assets, whatever it may be, right? Do companies understand that well?
Bob: They do. In part, a lot of this is — because we’re a new company and we’re putting new products into the market, we’ve paid a lot of attention and had a lot of conversations with industry to see what was bringing the most value to them. Our business model currently is a lease, so that reduces that upfront large expenditure so that it flattens that out over time. That allows a company to have something that always works, is always updated, always has software updates, and maybe we send out a new drone, for example, when one starts indicating that the motor is getting X number of flight hours and needs to be replaced. So they get a constantly upgraded, evolving piece of technology that always just works. It’s just a recurring fee, kind of like Microsoft Office software as a service fee. They understand that value created.
Then the value that we’re able to bring to the job is we’re able to free up the engineers to do the more value-creation tasks. We’re able to also eliminate a lot of the costs associated with getting workers in elevation, which rough rule of thumb is 60 percent of the cost of the job could be just getting your workers at elevation. So if you don’t have to have cranes, you don’t have to have lifts — again, you have to pick the right tool from your toolbox to use, and this is not the exact solution you need for every situation, but in certain situations, if you're able to eliminate scaffolding or cranes, you can eliminate a lot of costs. Even better, if you're able to return asset to service quicker or prevent an asset from being taken out of service to do this inspection or maintenance, that has even larger dollar savings.
Ben: One thing that I think is somewhat related to that dynamic, in 2020, is the COVID-19 pandemic. When you mentioned the value equation, beyond the factors that are always true as it pertains to our business and putting workers out in the field for these traditional inspections, in 2020 there’s all sorts of associated risks just with having the travel, period, and trying to put workers out of their homes into an environment — not so much that the jobsite isn’t safe, but in many cases the hoops they have to jump through to get to a jobsite.
Have you heard from companies anything about the impacts of the pandemic? I’m guessing in this year especially, a system that can avoid having to put your workers in transit, out in the field and do something instead through your systems autonomously, that could be a big boost. Is that something that you've heard in recent months?
Bob: Not as much as you would expect. We’ve heard some of that, but it hasn’t turned into a lot as this time. That’s in part because the organizations we’re dealing with right now tend to be very large and slow to change. But what we have seen is some jobs where they’ve extended them — because of either scaffolding, they can’t get the people there, or like you mentioned the extra hoops you have to jump through to get people there. They’re pushing off some of their inspections and maintenance. But they can’t do that forever, and they do have the same mindset that you just mentioned, that robotic systems can do these tasks potentially without having to have people travel. It’s making it safer for the corrosion engineer.
Ben: That’s interesting. I guess it makes sense at this point if you're dealing with larger companies. It’s probably not the same as it would be dealing with someone that’s working on a smaller scale, and, month to month, they’re thinking more bigger picture than what we’ve been dealing with for the last three or four months. That makes sense.
Bob: Yes, and a lot of this is actually fitting together really well with a lot of technology stuff that’s been happening pre-COVID. This whole move to the digital twin, for example. This whole digitizing asset data and information. Having robotic systems do work and maintenance on assets and/or do contact-based measurement of asset gives you data to feed into those digital twin models.
Ben: As far as the next few months or even a couple of years — you mentioned these programs that are in development, you’ve been around four years as a company overall — what does the path forward look like for you guys as you get closer to true commercialization. I know you're in progress with your partnerships with a number of these companies right now. What do the next few months or years look like as you get closer to launching some of your products on a larger scale?
Bob: For the most part it’s just an expansion. Right now, we’ve got a few pilots going with non-destructive testing. We hope to turn those into actual leases of the system. Once we’ve completed that, we’ll be better able to have a turnkey solution ready for somebody so that it’s just, “Here’s the manual, here’s some training, now you can operate this system. Take it out into the world and start using it.”
Concurrent with that, we hope to be launching the Soft Wash system as well, because that’s not as complicated to operate as the aircraft that take non-destructive testing measurements. But it does also require a lot of knowledge, because if you're using sodium hydroxide to clean something, you’re using hazardous chemicals. So you have to make sure you have knowledgeable staff. That’s one of the things we want to ensure, that we’re certifying the people that operate these robotic systems so that we know that when they take our systems out into the world, they know what they’re doing and they’re going to do a good job. We hope to not only expand non-destructive testing but get the Soft Wash system out there into the world and then start expanding on use cases for the cleaning component, and then shortly thereafter start the pilot projects with some of the systems for coating and actual painting.
Ben: Bob, before we let you go, for any of our listeners that might want more information from you, the company, how can they find out more from Apellix? I’m guessing it’s the website. Anyone that wants to learn more about these programs, how can they get that information?
Bob: Thanks, Ben. Very easily you can go to www.apellix.com. Or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On the website, there’s a resource page with videos of our different products and different platforms, as well as a link to the YouTube channel, which has additional videos.
Ben: Sounds good. Bob, thank you so much for the time, and look forward to catching up with you down the road.
Bob: I appreciate it. Thank you, Ben.
For more information, contact: Apellix, www.apellix.com