Drones vs. High-Up Graffiti

Years ago The New Yorker had a reader contest, asking you to add one letter to a word, to make a new word that made sense. The amusing entry I remember was “giraffiti,” meant to describe graffiti in improbably high locations. The term is now in the Urban Dictionary.

Image: Steve Garvie

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Whereas ground-level graffiti is easy enough to spray over, giraffiti presents a problem for municipalities. “Specialized trucks, called UBITs*, are needed for hard-to-reach graffiti,” writes the Washington State Department of Transportation. “These trucks are in high demand, and we [only] have six of them to cover the state. They are usually reserved for higher-priority bridge maintenance and inspection work.”

That’s probably why, in many places, you’ll see giraffiti that remains untouched for years. But “Our crews prioritize the removal of graffiti that contains offensive or obscene images or profanity because it is distracting to drivers,” the WSDOT writes.

Mike Gauger, a member of the WSDOT’s Tacoma-area maintenance crew, came up with an idea. Frustrated with having to pull an UBIT off of a repair job to take care of some giraffiti, he had an epiphany: The current thinking is, you need the UBIT to get a person up there. But you don’t need a person up there, you just need to get paint up there.

The team was already using drones for bridge inspections. “If drones could be used for inspections, why couldn’t they be used to spray paint?”

Gauger brought the idea to his director, who agreed to a pilot program. Because no spray-painting drone is commercially available, Gauger contacted a number of drone manufacturers until he found one willing to try prototyping one.

It’s been two years since Gauger first came up with the idea, and drone manufacturer Aquiline has finally delivered the first working prototype. Here’s Gauger testing it out. As you can see, it’s armed with a spray gun, and connected to the paint supply in the back of the truck by a long hose:

“Our highway maintenance employees with Part 107** drone licenses are being trained to operate the drone,” the WSDOT writes. “Mike and his crew will spend the rest of the year field testing the prototype drone in the Tacoma and Olympia area.”

The WSDOT says they’re “the first transportation agency to pilot the use of drones to combat graffiti,” but they know it’s not the end-all solution:

“This pilot program won’t end highway graffiti – it’s a constant struggle for our crews and law enforcement to address – but it’s another tool in our toolbox. We are excited to continue exploring new technologies to keep our crews safer and make them more efficient.”

And, hopefully, to reduce cost. Last year the WSDOT spent a whopping $815,000 on graffiti removal alone.


*UBIT, or UnderBridge Inspection Truck, is the WSDOT’s acronym for Snooper trucks.

**Part 107 is the Federal Aviation Administration’s designation for sub-55-lb. unmanned aircraft piloted by visual line-of-sight.

Source: core77

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