Florida spraying drone company attracts US Army attention for surprising reason

One Florida spraying drone company has piqued the interest of the U.S. Army to use drones for a rather unique use case: decontamination vehicles on the battlefield. 

Apellix, which is an American drone company based out of Jacksonville, Florida, is in the developmental stage of a project with the U.S. Army’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) response operations to use Apellix tether-controlled drones to decontaminate vehicles on a battlefield.

Apellix says their drones can clean a contaminated truck on a battlefield in 10 minutes, a sharp time-savings over what can amount to up to 10 hours using current methods. On top of the time savings, soldiers can stay farther away from contaminants, equipment can get back in use post-cleaning more quickly and even water is conserved.

How the Apellix drones work to decontaminate Army vehicles after CBRN exposure

The Apellix drones are tethered drones, meaning they remain connected to the ground via cords and hoses that provide ongoing power, as well as connection to fluids on the ground. 

An advanced sensor system enables the drones to fly much closer to structures than other existing aerial vehicles would be able to. 

Because the drones can better target fluid disbursement, they also have the potential to reduce the amount of water and decontaminant needed (which is an environmental benefit that also saves money).

The actual quantity of water used can vary by situation, but typically it can require 1,000 gallons or more the traditional way. That’s according to Robert Dahlstrom, founder and CEO of Apellix. Meanwhile, a drone typically demands only between 50 to 150 gallons.

Apellix spraying power washing drone
Photo courtesy of Apellix

A history of Apellix

Apellix is no stranger to innovation. It already holds six patents. But the drone company hardly started with military aspirations. 

Initially, the company intended for its drones to be used for painting and power washing structures. The goal was simply to improve safety by getting painters off ladders and scaffolding.

Its drones sold for between $29,000 and $59,000 (though Dahlstrom said the company is set to raise prices on Jan. 1, 2024 to between $34,000 and $69,000). But with a high price tag comes a powerful drone. In fact, Apellix drones are capable of spraying coatings on wind turbines 100 feet in the air.

Other players in the power washing drone space include Lucid, which builds custom drones starting at $25,000, and also offers drones for rent starting at $350 per day. (Lucid, for its part, has a fairly compelling partnership with T-Mobile.)

So how did Apellix get in the hands of the Army? That’s all thanks to U.S. Army Officer Mike Cress, who caught wind of the company and pitched the idea of using drones in the military.

“The current CBRN decontamination system is based upon supporting technologies that have remained basically unchanged for decades,” Cress wrote in a since-declassified paper about the need to modernize the Army’s decon process. “While there have been some minor changes to the decontamination process, it is still resource-intensive, requiring technical understanding, excessive troop support, massive amounts of water, proximity to the hazard, (takes) many hours to complete (and has) an identifiable, large, and difficult to defend layout. What we really needed was a different way of doing business.” 

Because the CBRN decontamination chemical is much like a latex paint, Cress (who has since retired) felt that using the drones would be viable. 

The Army and Apellix met up in 2022, which included a demo with a life-sized, plywood model of an Army transport truck covered with mud, which the Apellix tethered drone then washed off.

Apellix spraying drone CBRN Army
Photo courtesy of Apellix

That successful demo led to an official Army contract and sponsorship for Apellix in the Accelerator for Innovative Minds (AIM), which is a Defense incubator designed to speed up the acquisition process for technologies that could help protect against CBRN threats.

What to expect with Apellix going forward

The Apellix involvement with the U.S. Army is all part of a project sponsored by a Department of Defense incubator.

As for what’s next? There will be a full demonstration of the Apellix drone technology next year.  It’s being called the ‘demo in the desert’, which involves a presentation at a demo site in Colorado in April 2024.

The Florida-based Apellix crew will pack up their drone and fly it out there to the test facility. All sorts of technologies will demonstrate their abilities, and key Army expert decision makers will then decide the fate of the company’s involvement with the Army from there.

But Army contract or not, Apellix is still committed to its original mission of building drones for painting and power washing. In fact, Apellix recently started selling its drones overseas, starting with Australian distributor Wash Drones Australia.

The company has also sold drones in the EU, UK, Scandinavia, Central and South America. It’s also in the process of setting up a distributor in the Middle East.

In fact, only about 10% of Apellix efforts are focused on the military, Dahlstrom told The Drone Girl, with the remaining 90% of energy being channeled toward drones for the general market. 

The company is also focused on improving its technology. That includes building in an integration with the scanning system that locates the contaminated areas on the trucks, tanks, and other assets.

It’s also working on implementing additional autonomous functionality so the full decontamination process can be controlled from a bunker — or really anywhere in the world. 

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