Drones, robots making worksites safer

Safety experts are enthusiastic about the increased use of drones and robots in the workplace as the newer models are smarter, safer, more versatile, and less expensive. Some analysts say the new technologies are ushering in a second machine age and have the potential to be as revolutionary as the Internet.

Drones, which until very recently sounded like science fiction, are now practical and common enough for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue operational rules to fully integrate them into the nation's airspace. The agency says its recently issued regulations will stimulate innovation, create jobs, and prevent work-related injuries and fatalities.

"We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information, and deploy disaster relief," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in announcing the new rules in June.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta added "with this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA's mission to protect public safety. But this is just our first step. We're already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations."

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta added "with this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA's mission to protect public safety. But this is just our first step. We're already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations." Industry analysts estimate the FAA's action will help generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. The number of drones, or commercial unmanned aerial systems, is expected to grow rapidly over the next five years, increasing from 32,800 in 2016 to 101,300 next year, and to 542,200 by 2020.

"For anything a person can do, there is someone trying to find out if it can be done easier with a drone," an official with ProSight Specialty Insurance Group Inc., which offers drone insurance, noted to Business Insurance. The publication says among the tasks ideally suited to drones are inspections of tall telecommunications equipment and construction sites.

Drones are improving safety on construction sites by, among other things, checking to ensure scaffolding is set up properly or that workers are using fall-protection equipment. Also, drones can easily fly over infrastructure and send back images showing the condition of electric lines and other equipment, Business Insurance adds.

Utility companies, in particular, note drones reduce the number of times workers have to negotiate steep terrain or make dangerous ascents and descents of high towers. Roofing companies, to cite another example, like drones because drone aerial photography enables them to check roofs are installed properly without having to send somebody up on the roof.

Although consumers associate drones with battlefields, the unmanned systems have an even brighter future in agricultural fields. As the Des Moines Register notes, that's because agriculture operations span large areas and are mostly free of privacy and safety concerns that have bogged the use of drones in populated areas.


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"Farmers with operations spanning hundreds or thousands of acres could use drones to find and possibly treat a disease before it spreads, or tailor the amount of pesticides, water, fertilizer, and other applications to reduce costs and boost production. Livestock producers could monitor cattle and other livestock," the newspaper adds.

Drones will likely have a future even in the insurance industry as they can more accurately measure insurance claims by surveying an entire agricultural field rather than certain sections, and do so in a way that resolves the claim much faster. It also could save the government millions by avoiding payouts on fraudulent claims, the publication states.

"I think this really is a technology that is going to be a huge game-changer for agriculture," says Christina Bloebaum, a professor of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University.

While drones in recent years have caught the public's fancy, it is robots that are having a revolutionary impact in the workplace. "The idea, once so amazing, of robots working on assembly lines is regarded these days as laughably primitive by those in business," is how the Guardian newspaper summed up the contemporary scene.

"Thanks to vast increases in dexterity and the ability to see in three dimensions, modern robots can cook and serve fast food; pick fruit, carefully distinguishing between the ripe and unripe; keep control of huge inventories and stack shelves accordingly," it added.

The London Review of Books offers another glimpse of the modern worksite. "Take a look online at the latest generation of Kiva robots employed by Amazon. The robots are low, slow, accessorized in a friendly orange. They can lift three thousand pounds at a time and carry an entire stack of shelves in one go."

"Directed wirelessly along preprogrammed paths, they swivel and dance around each other with surprising elegance, then pick up their packages according to the instructions printed on automatically scanned barcodes. They are not alarming, but they are inexorable, and they aren't going away: the labor being done by these robots is work that will never again be done by people," the publication adds.

Robots have become so smart and versatile it is commonplace now for analysts to warn they will soon start displacing tens of thousands of workers. Whereas robots used to be big and clumsy and could do only one thing over and over, "collaborative robots" can be set to do one task one day-such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box-and a different task the next.

"Some are mobile and able to range freely inside a factory. The use of advanced sensors means they stop or reposition themselves when a person gets in their way, solving a safety issue that long kept robots out of smaller factories," reports the Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, the day is not far off when machines on the plant floor will actively identify problems, determine a course of action, execute, and measure those results, predicts Seegrid, which manufactures driverless vision guided vehicles for use in warehouses and distribution centers.

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