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Drone Pilot Program Takes Off

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After more than a year in North America, the Valmet drone team is excited about its “pilot” program.

From tissue and paper to lumber and power producers, the program’s testing has expanded and is being used in a long list of applications, including thermal, confined spaces, lime kilns, boilers, and Yankee Dryer hoods – and that’s just in the tissue industry. The drones have also cleaned away cobwebs (a fire hazard) in power plants, and sawdust (another fire hazard) in lumber mills.

According to Bobby Hyde, Valmet’s Product Specialist for Tissue Solutions in North America, the genesis for the drone program was tied to the global pandemic. “The pandemic created challenges for onsite maintenance,” Hyde said. “Considering this, the Valmet team came up with the idea to partner with drone experts so we could still help our customers and ‘see’ what was happening onsite without actually being there.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Since the original duster design, Hyde says the prototype has undergone several revisions to improve efficiency and handling, including a major redesign of the blower from a flat shape to a cylindrical style (think toilet paper core). This change has helped improve battery runtime – extending it from roughly four minutes to six with 10 minutes being a near-term goal, and 15 the long. Drone operators, who are all trained FAA Part 107 UAS Pilots (including Hyde), use First Person View (FPV) glasses to maneuver the drone, and a laser and high quality camera to pinpoint the exact location to activate the blower. Other improvements made include changing the drone “cage” construction from 3D aluminum tubes to 3D resin to increase resiliency, adding a second motor, and multiple software upgrades.

There are six chips built into each drone that feed flight data into the “cube” or drone brain. The collected data are uploaded into a computer and analyzed to make any necessary physical, operational or design adjustments. Hyde notes they have already created two blower drone variations and are expecting a third any day. A fourth is also currently in production. Because of the ongoing chip shortage and supply chain issues, delays have slowed, but not stopped, the program’s upward trajectory.

Plans are also underway for a vacuum drone, but Hyde says Valmet is focused specifically on perfecting the blower first. “We are a safety-driven company, and therefore want to be absolutely sure we’ve applied every possible test to help reduce risk and make this drone all it can be before moving on to our next iteration.”

Hyde says that Valmet is planning several road trips to demonstrate the drones’ capabilities, including its booth at TAPPICon in Charlotte, North Carolina, April 30 – May 4, where they will demonstrate the dust drone, the confined space drone and the stack inspection drone. Prior to the TAPPICon demos, Hyde recommends downloading a recent webinar that provides an overview of how the blower works.

To learn more about the drone program, email Hyde or call him at 207-604-8851.


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