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Paper Airplanes

Week of 9 Nov 2009

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It seems like UAVs have become ubiquitous in my thinking recently. A "UAV" is an "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" and they are very popular with the military these days, as well as in some other applications. (Grammar note: "an UAV" just does not sound right, so we'll use "a UAV" here).

This past Friday, I was at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where I serve on the Advisory Council in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Various research projects were showcased to the group, and there were those UAVs again. Still having Attention Deficit Disorder after all these years, I got to daydreaming about how we might use these in pulp and paper manufacturing. Some of my ideas follow and I'll probably expand on these over the next few months in The Thompson Private Letter.

First, it occurred to me these would be quite handy around paper machines. One could have whole coveys of these (each no bigger than a tennis ball, some as small as a golf ball), roosting in a recharging station like pigeons in a pigeon loft, sort of a 3-D "Roomba" experience (the robot vacuum cleaner that always finds its way back to the recharging station and plugs itself in). These little UAVs, some specialized, some generalized, could fly about the paper machine hall at the direction of the operators in the control room, on pre-programmed paths or at the direction of others (more about others in a minute). They could be programmed so that some are in flight and some are recharging all the time. They could have all kinds of sensors and visual cameras. For instance, linked to data logging systems, they could hover near recent locations of paper breaks and zoom in for a close look as soon as a break occurred. They could fly in dryer hoods, press sections and hover over the wire for an up close look at the wet line or even a nip.

Around the winder, specialized UAVs could routinely check the slitters and sample the air for dust, discovering a slitter blade is dull and needs changing before it is even noticeable to humans.

If a valve stuck or a motor seemed to be overheating, operators or maintenance personnel could dispatch a UAV to the scene to visually check out the problem. No matter if the location is high in the room or the atmosphere is unpleasant or unsafe for humans.

All of these capabilities could also be used by others--specialists sitting somewhere and monitoring all the machines within the corporation or possibly specialists working for an equipment supplier. They could zoom in with specialized and visual UAVs, analyzing problems without ever having to go to the millsite. They could simultaneously look at similar conditions on two or more machines thousands of miles apart.

Sensors that could detect a human in danger (sensitively tuned to human trauma signals) could instantly dispatch special UAVs to the scene of an accident and give an immediate report to EMTs and off site Emergency Responders so they would know the details (temperature, heart rate, breathing status and so forth) before they ever arrived, thereby helping in the critical few minutes after an accident happens. Another way to sensitize the UAVs to potential human danger would be to have all employees wear Wi-Fi linked proximity sensors that alert the UAVs any time a human is too close to machinery, so they could be on the scene almost immediately, perhaps intervening with the human before an accident even happens, getting the human's attention by "dive-bombing" like a bee or wasp.

In the woodyard, UAVs could regularly check wood piles for moisture, delivering data from many sampling points to data logging algorithms wirelessly. Same in recycled fiber yards. In powerhouses, UAVs could safely look for high pressure steam leaks high up in boiler houses without endangering humans. UAVs could routinely survey pipe racks for leaks or routine maintenance throughout the mill.

In warehouses, UAVs could take a physical inventory every shift.

After a truck or railcar is loaded, but before the doors are closed, a UAV could fly over the entire load (in the narrow space between the top of the load and the top of the truck or railcar), recording its condition completely as a permanent record for future freight damage claims.

Sophisticated UAV's should be able to maneuver inside barking drums and drum pulpers (after all, people fly in airplanes through hurricanes). Lime kilns may be a bit warm, however.

Within 15 years, I'll wager, a modern mill will have a fleet of 100 or more UAVs doing all sorts of tasks that help the mill control costs, make better quality products and improve safety. Why can I say this with such certainty? I have described nothing here that does not already exist in its separate and disparate parts. In fact, if you want to make a crude one now, just take a hobbyist's radio controlled helicopter and hang a streaming Wi-Fi compatible camera on it (you can build this for less than $500). After that, it is just miniaturization, software and refinement. Untethering sophisticated sensors and allowing them to go where they are needed makes so much sense. It is just as plain as day to me that this will happen soon--hope I get to see it.

Just think what we could do more safely with UAVs--check or sniff tanks, observe rotating machinery and other matters that humans have to do in close proximity now. But in the meantime, we need to be safe and live to see the day when these dangers are reduced by UAVs.

Be safe and we'll talk next week.

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