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Wall Walking Drones: The Indoor Inspectors
By Brad Frischkorn

A Skywalker may have lived in a distant fictional galaxy a long time ago, but for drones on Earth today “wall walking” is just now coming into its own.

As Japan grapples simultaneously with a shrinking population, rising taxes and high costs, drones are increasing doing the jobs formerly performed by humans. Among them: structural inspections.

“A lot of Japan’s modern public infrastructure – roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, and schoolhouses -- were built in the 1960s and 70s and are coming due for more routine inspections as they age,” says Toshihiko Ito, sales chief at Saitotec K.K., a 10-year-old Yamanashi-based industrial drone manufacturer. “You can’t just put off inspections out of concern for public safety. But doing it the old way with an army of engineers and scaffolding is just too expensive.”

The bill for maintaining Tokyo’s roads alone comes to 50-60 billion yen annually, with about 13 billion yen of that used for bridges, according to reports.

The price for negligence can be high. In late 2012, concrete ceiling panels inside the Sasago Tunnel west of Tokyo collapsed, crushing three vehicles and killing nine people, immediately bringing public attention to the issue of infrastructure degradation. Investigators concluded that the aging of the bolts holding the panels in place may have caused the accident.

Saitotec specializes in customizing and servicing drones, as well as training personnel to fly them. The majority of its machines are put to construction-related uses, such as inspections related to structural integrity, a category that includes everything from erosion, water damage, leaks, cracks, and long-term stress effects.

Saitotec’s basic “Dokaheli” branded lineup ranges from 1.5kg trainers to heavy-duty 15kg all-carbon fiber models, all of which are multi-copters. As with most industrial drone makers, the company’s machines can be outfitted with a variety of equipment, including infrared and ultrasound sensors, as well as HD still and video camera gear.

The company’s wall walking drones feature massive wheel-like appendages to guide them along the surfaces found in tunnel and building interiors, and are geometrically similar to wall walking toys that have found popularity.

Wall walking inspection gear – inclusive of non-flying robots -- is garnering global interest, as more countries explore the utility of using automated and remote technologies to investigate structural aging, as well as the effects of fires, quakes, floods, and storms.

But this specialized use for drones carries special challenges. The use magnetic-based technology and vacuum adhesion techniques is being explored, for example, but it is difficult to apply them to structures with diverse surface shapes and materials.

That leaves so-called ‘old-new tech’ solutions – including somewhat clumsy-looking wheel-based drone designs -- as the most viable answers for the time being.

“The sensors and cameras already available can do the (inspection) job,” says Mr. Ito. “The problem is getting them to the site and keeping them there. A good deal of the effort in developing industrial drones is focused on getting weights down, payloads up, and stretching flight times.”

Saitotec’s largest 15kg drone sports a payload capacity of about 35kgs. But it also carries a 4.8 million yen basic price tag.

Flight times remain limited for this type of drone, which need juice to feed up to six large rotors at once. “Battery makers around the world are under a lot of pressure to make more compact, longer-lasting, and faster-charging power sources, since batteries are typically the heaviest single on-board drone component,” he adds.

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Saitotec wall walker inspection drone

“A lot of Japan’s modern public infrastructure – roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, and schoolhouses -- were built in the 1960s and 70s and are coming due for more routine inspections as they age.” -- Toshihiko Ito

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