Marc: Hi, everyone, and welcome to this fifth episode of the Bounce Podcast. Today, we are with Chris Mathews, who is IT Operations Manager at AM/NS Calvert, a steel processing plant based in Calvert, Alabama, and a 50/50 joint venture between ArcelorMittal USA and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. Chris, you have more than 30 years of experience in IT integration, engineering work and consulting and you're also an accomplished pilot and model aircraft enthusiast. Chris, thank you for being with us and welcome to the Bounce Podcast.
Chris: Thank you for having me.
Marc: Chris, you're working in one of the most advanced steel finishing facility in the world. I read that AM/NS Calvert has the capacity to produce 5.3 million tons of flat roll carbon steel products annually? That sounds huge and I'm really keen to learn more about how you are flying drone in a steel processing plant? To get started, could you tell us a little bit more about the work you do at AM/NS Calvert?
Chris: Sure. I'm originally the IT Operations Manager, I still am and I've also added the drone portion to my title. Three years ago, we started using drones for mapping the site. We tried to update our as-built drawings and we needed a new base map to more accurately represent our layout and we use the DJI drones Phantom 2. It does such a good job of providing us what we needed that we started using it for also doing visual inspections of our structural steel that we have out here for our company. We use a Phantom 4 for doing more advanced type of inspections since the camera sensor was a higher resolution than the original Phantom 2 that we had at our site three years ago.
Grew it into multiple drones. We have two or three Phantom 4s, Phantom 4 Pros and also the Matrice versions of the DJI drones. The Matrice 100, specifically, we used for zooming into structures where we can get a lot more detail. We also use the Matrice 600 in places where we couldn't get with the 100, that was for some of the larger structures we have on site. From there, we started using these drones indoors as well. All the way from the Phantom 2, all the way through the Matrice 600 and found some issues with trying to use these indoors.
Marc: You've tried using DJI drones in indoor at the beginning?
Chris: That's correct. We found out, as we were using them indoors to do the structural inspections indoors, we were having a lot of issues with metal and motors in the areas that we were trying to do these inspections. Specifically around the cranes. We have a lot of indoor cranes, a lot of indoor storage area that needed to be inspected. The magnetic interference made this quite impossible or unreliable for safe flight using the specific drones. We had a lot of compass errors and a lot of interference, specifically with our controllers in certain areas that needed to be inspected. We had to go look somewhere else and that's how we came to the Elios.
Marc: You really moved from using your outdoor tools to using Elios because of EMIs or electromagnetic interferences? I was on your website trying to understand the environment where you work in, and it mentions that the facility where you work includes a river terminal, hot strip mill, cold rolling meal, hot-dip galvanizing lines, all that. All these equipments that I've actually no clue what they are. For people like me who've never been in a steel manufacturing plant, it would be nice if you could describe the environment you work in.
Chris: Sure. The site itself is roughly 2,000 acres. It includes all those different facilities that you named, starting at the river terminal. We bring in slabs, these 22-ton slabs of steel. They take those slabs, reheat them and in each of these mills, they turn them into a coil. They start the hot strip mill where they're actually flattening it down to a long coil and they could be millimeters thick. It could be all the way up to almost an inch thick.
Turning it into a coil and then they process these coils depending on the type of steel that they're wanting to manufacture. They process in through different heats and different processes of coating. Some of it, it's made into automotive steel, some it's made into pipe material. Some of it it's made for washers, dryers appliances. It's this various different areas that the steel is used that's processed a certain way through each of these mills. The environment that we work in is very dynamic in a way that they have specific pieces of equipment that require inspection at various times. We have to enter these areas whenever they're down or not producing. They are confined space.
A good example of one area that we needed to get to is our crop shear which sits in front of the finishing mill, in the hot strip mill. It's a very confined space. It's a very hot greasy environment and wet too, as we use a lot of water in that area. Luckily, we don't have to wait six months before we do another inspection on it. We can just use the Elios to go into it, fly underneath it and up inside of it and look around and check for seal leakage and oil lines and sensor connections, things like that that would require taking it down for a day to just prep it to be able to be entered and another day to break it all back down after inspection. We can do it all in 15 minutes and get everything we need with Elios, during production, in the middle of roll change.
Marc: You're able to inspect your equipment while they are still operating? That's what you mean?
Chris: That's correct. Whenever they're in production, there are times that they have to change the roles. They have to take the mill down, specific for that reason. It's roughly a 15 to 20 minute time frame and that's where we go in and during that 15-minute timeframe, we can go in and fly around in it and do a spot inspection any time they need it. If they suspect there's an issue with it, we can go and fly inside of it, check it and come back out again and it's done. I mean, it's - we never get in the middle of their production. The only thing that stops production is the normal roll change that they have to do during that production period.
Marc: How do you guys plan that? I mean, those roll changes, did it happen at a given frequency so that you know you have to be there on site and perform the inspection or is it more like they call you when they need you? How does that work?
Chris: Well, I wish it was that easy to where you can just schedule ahead of time. Like you said, it's something that just happens and they call us and we're there. We do have a standby crew there if we need it. We can run out there and get it looked at any time, 24/7, so that's the beauty of it.
Marc: How many people are there on your team?
Chris: I have trained - currently we have 10 people that can utilize the Elios and we're training more of them as we find more areas that we can use it in, to be able to work in teams of two and be able to swap out in case there is like an inspection that does take longer than 15 minutes. One that takes, you know, anywhere from a couple hours to a day to some of our bigger ones where we're inspecting the girders and that's ongoing, that could take a couple of weeks. For the most part, each of these people are already trained on it and have utilized in these areas. We've practiced in similar areas so from fined space end up in girders. It makes it easy.
In such a large facility, we can pick a corner and do all the practice work in that corner and not really get in the middle of production. That's the whole reason of having this drone, I mean that's the beauty of it. Is that you can do the work while they're working around you, even the cranes, they don't affect it.
Marc: So you don't have to stop the production. If you were to compare that with the traditional approach where you actually get up to the place you have to inspect. You have to put in place -- I don't know, ladders or rope access or scaffolding, how much time are you are you gaining with using Elios?
Chris: A lot. I'll give you an example. The furnace inspections that they do now. Those are the ones where they actually have to be able to go in when they're actually down for an inspection period. They normally schedule sometimes a week to do these inspections in the furnaces. As you mentioned, they do have to take the time to erect scaffolding and you're talking about areas that are 400 feet long and 70 feet tall and about 10, 15 feet wide. Those are some large areas and it's a lot more efficient. We were able to do what it takes them a week, we were able to do it in eight or nine hours with Elios and it took them another four hours, five hours to go through the film, and they made all their updates to the maintenance, and prepared for even another outage for the next time we go down. That's a lot more than what they were able to do with just doing it manually with scaffolding and ropes and that kind of thing. It's very efficient.
Marc: It's about a seven-time factor that you can --
Chris: Easily, yes.
Marc: That's huge. You mentioned that the environment where you work in has a lot of electromagnetic interferences. How does it affect drones? In your experience with drones, I mean drones you've been using in the past and Elios actually?
Chris: The drones, the original ones that we were using, the Phantom 4s, in those environments, whenever they start throwing compass errors, they start getting very erratic and unpredictable in that environment. Every time a crane would come near us, even a couple hundred feet away, it would it would throw the EMI out in a way that it would actually affect the performance of the drone that we were using, those Phantoms. That's when we put the Elios in its place, and we flew around the crane while it was moving. We flew with the crane while it was moving and didn't have any issues.
I mean, we're right there doing inspections of that same area that we weren't able to with the Phantom, with the Elios, with no problems. I mean, it just kept on going and it was very predictable and it was safe.
Marc: You're even inspecting things while they're moving. That must be quite difficult, isn't it?
Chris: No, well, you have two cranes that share the same bridge or a gantry, and where we're flying in between those two cranes during the inspections while they're moving. We'll have two cranes going back and forth on each side of us while we're in the middle of it and looking at the bolts and the joints and all the welds and all that. Yes, it works out really well actually [laughs]. You can't do that with a Phantom, you can't even do that with a high power camera. I mean, this is - you get up and personal and you concentrate on what you're inspecting and you forget about the cranes. They're not even in the in the picture anymore. You just concentrate on staying in that specific area and you can do it while they're moving material around and not even have to shut them down.
Marc: You don't even matter if, for example, the crane would push the Elios or -- I mean that wouldn't interfere ng in your inspection?
Chris: No, it does not. It doesn't. It's not a factor at all. We do our safety, basically. We do a safety brief before we go up and that's always one of the things that we are looking out for is the crane. Basically, we have a visual observer on the ground. We were using it -- we try to use Elios to where we were - have one person running the cameras and the other one just flying the drone but it was more cumbersome for us. Now, other people may have a different vision on this one or have had different experiences than we have. Usually, the pilot flying operates camera and does inspection all at the same time, while the other person just makes sure we don't have any issues with any cranes or flying into anything we're not supposed to fly into.
Marc: The second person is more here to help the pilots warn about an upcoming danger or a situation that would stop an inspection?
Chris: That’s correct.
Marc: You were mentioning as well that you have trained 10 of your people at the plants. I have two questions for you. How difficult was it for you to get started with Elios because Elios is so different from other drones you've been using in the past and I guess you have a huge experience with that, with flying model aircraft. My first question is, how difficult was it for you to get used to Elios and efficient with it? Then, the second question is, how much training did it get to get your team up to speed and conducted with Elios?
Chris: Generally the people that I have trained have very little and mostly do not have any prior remote control aircraft experience. What we generally do is get them acclimated to orientation and just basic flying skills with the Phantom outdoors, just to get them to understand the normal roll, pitch, yaw maneuvers, and those in, those out. From there, we'll bring them indoors and give them the Elios. Some of them pick it right up like it was natural, and some of them struggle with it a little bit. It's not a vehicle that you can just pick up and run with. I've been able to get people was zero experience to make it fly and do what we need for the inspections, which is really, says a lot for that vehicle.
Marc: How long did it take? I mean, an average for you to take someone who has zero experience to having him or her up to speed train inspection?
Chris: Anywhere between a total -- now this is like eight to 10 hours on the Phantom and probably another eight hours on the Elios is the average.
Marc: 20 hours.
Chris: 20 hours would be nominal. Yes.
Marc: That is a very small investment, I mean in terms of time and resources compared to everything that your company would gain in using Elios, I would guess?
Chris: That's correct.
Marc: As the initiator of using Elios in the company, how long did it take to you to put together -- I don't know if you guys are using SOPs, standard operating procedures and if you have a pattern that you repeat every time you do an inspection, and I'm curious how long it took you to put that together for the environment you work in.
Chris: The SOPs vary depending on the type of inspections that we're doing. We work closely. My team of a couple of pilots work closely with a team of a couple of engineers and the ones that are flying these inspections along with us and developed the SOPs along the maintenance and reliability, maintainability process already in place and all we did was replace the drone. The places where they were doing it manually with the man lifts, we would use a drone in their place. We would come up with a standardized process or flight pattern for each of these areas that we use over and over and as long as we kept that consistent, that made it easier to teach and easier to execute and provide us with more accurate and consistent data.
Marc: You've also improved the quality of the data you are able to collect?
Chris: Absolutely because you get to see more and it's a lot -- You're doing it from the ground, you're not hanging upside down or in a man lift trying to get in a place that you can't get the man lift in. You're able to get a lot more data, you're able to see it closer. You're able to see it, the camera on the Elios does a really good job of providing us really clear images.
Marc: Okay, that's interesting. It's not only benefit of not stopping production while you're doing a maintenance job or a visual inspection, but it's also improving the quality of the data you are able to collect. I'm also surprised, you mentioned that you started from your old SOPs, and you simply replaced the way you proceed, but it was really the same SOP. There was not much work to do, right? Except trying ones with a drone instead of a human?
Chris: That's correct, we would fly it in different patterns, and found the most efficient way of doing it. We tried probably two or three different patterns. Like I said, it depended if we were doing a girder and belt inspection, or if we were doing the furnace inspection. All these areas, of course, are confined space or a fall hazards, for the most part. We would use that with that same pattern over and over again because most everything repeats. I mean, we would isolate it to a small area and say, "Okay, well, this is the reproducible area for every type of inspection.", and we'd do it the same way every time.
Marc: What you learn on one specific inspection or one specific asset is reusable sometime to another similar?
Chris: Absolutely, yes, that's correct, that's correct, with the direction that you go and everything, absolutely. That makes it easier for whenever people are reading the videos, if they know how to read the direction that we take for the girders and bolt inspection, they would also know how we'd use the same direction inside the furnace. They would be able to follow through the same type of pattern.
Marc: You mentioned crane inspection, confined spaces inspection and furnaces, is there any other type of asset or area that you're inspecting at your plants?
Chris: Yes, the crop shear. That was when I was talking about first in our presentation. It was the crop shear in front of the finishing mill [unintelligible 00:22:22]. That's the one that, whenever a slab turns into a coil, or in the process of turning into a coil, as the metal's being flattened, it comes up to it and it cuts to the head of it off, and the tail of it off, the first two or three feet off the nose and two to three feet of the tail. That was one of the other assets that we utilized it a lot in. With the others, I'm sure that we can probably do similar type of inspections.
Marc: That was about to be my next question. Is there any plan in your team to expand to other experiments using Elios drones?
Chris: Sure. The next time, the furnaces or the hot strip furnaces will then be going inside the stacks and doing a full stack inspection, that will be the next one we do. Then, of course, utilidoors. I'm not sure if you know what I'm talking about, but there's also their utility corridors underneath the mill that have [unintelligible 00:23:35] power data, low voltage, that kind of thing, that run across the bottom in the tunnels. Those have to be inspected every so often as well.
Marc: Okay, are you are using a range extender for underground work or corridors inspection?
Chris: Yes, we are.
Marc: How was your experience with the range extender? Did it bring something to your operations? Have you tried with and without?
Chris: Yes, the areas that were giving us more problems, it seems to help a little bit more. Of course, the areas where there's nothing but concrete, and they're deep, and they're like trenches, those the ones where we're still having issues because there's nothing to reflect the signal. It gets absorbed by the concrete more readily. There's less rebar, that thing inside of the concrete. It helps but it's still a little bit of a challenge.
Marc: Sure, it's not a perfect solution but at least, sometime it gives you the ability to access one specific area that, without a range extender, you would simply forget about trying even to enter.
Marc: Okay, we've reached the end of this episode. Thanks a lot, Chris for being with us today, and thank you very much for sharing your experience with Elios and other commercial drones. I wish you plenty of success in the work you do at AM/NS Calvert and have fun flying Elios.
Chris: Will do. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.