Creative Way to Increase Safety in Asbestos Inspections: Drones

A cargo company that leases space at London’s Heathrow Airport recently used a drone to take pictures of a leaking warehouse roof rather than performing a physical inspection because the roof, which contains asbestos, could have potentially collapsed with the weight of a person walking on it, according to Your Local Guardian. If roofing materials containing asbestos were to break or be crushed, asbestos fibers could become dangerously airborne in released dust, so the drone approach was a good and creative safety practice.

Asbestos Is Not Dangerous If Part of a Solid Object

Asbestos becomes dangerous when its microscopic fibers become airborne, creating the possibility that someone might breathe them in, putting him or her at risk of developing a severe and potentially fatal disease like mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer.

The mineral has often been used within building materials because of asbestos’ insulating and fireproofing properties. When a building material is intact, the asbestos does not pose a danger, but when the material is broken or starts to deteriorate, the fibers become friable, meaning subject to floating into the airstream and potentially into someone’s respiratory system.

Interestingly, in the Heathrow story, a company spokesman said that in the past it would have used cherry pickers to safely inspect the roof without walking on it. Unfortunately, sometimes those responsible for building repairs, remodels, renovations or demolitions do not observe safe practices (including worker safety and environmental laws and regulations) to contain and prevent the release of asbestos from broken building materials.

Other uses of drones in the asbestos context

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the first time used a government drone to photograph waste piles used to contain asbestos contamination on a 25-acre Pennsylvania Superfund site, according to Unmanned Aerial Online. The EPA said it would be hard to get to the piles while walking and it wanted to be sure the piles were holding. Presumably, it was also safer for the people involved in the inspection.

An Italian initiative has looked at a drone that would use a special sensor to detect asbestos below based on the mineral’s unique frequency. The aircraft could potentially fly over a city of rooftops and even identify deterioration of asbestos-containing material, suggesting a potential need for replacement or remediation, according to sUAS News.

The evolution of drone technology for use in the fight against asbestos is likely to continue.