Washington state deploys $30,000 drone to combat graffiti

Washington state is readying a $1 million anti-vandalism project, part of which involves testing a $30,000 drone that paints over graffiti. Signed into law on March 15 by Gov. Jay Inslee, the “Graffiti Abatement and Reduction Pilot Program” is scheduled to go into effect on June 6, and includes “field testing spray drone technology” along Interstate 15 between Tacoma and Seattle, as well as north Spokane.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the idea comes from a maintenance crew member following a “lightbulb moment” while painting over graffiti for the second time in a single week. To tackle hard-to-reach spots on bridges and overpasses, WSDOT relies on what are known as Under Bridge Inspection Trucks (UBITs). But with only six UBITs across the entire state, it can take a while to reserve and schedule one for dispatch to graffiti sites.

“​​If drones could be used for inspections, why couldn’t they be used to spray paint?” the maintenance worker wondered.

[Related: A father and son designed the world’s fastest quadcopter drone.]

Unfortunately for them, scouring the internet produced no such drones for purchase. The department soon reached out to Aquiline, a self-described “all-American drone and cloud technology company” that offers similar drone tech for tasks like roof cleaning, window washing, and firefighting. WSDOT thinks the company’s roughly $30,000 Spartacus Endure drone system should do the trick, following some additional modifications to let its pressure nozzle handle paint.

But even with such price tags, Aquiline doesn’t appear to funnel much of its profits towards website maintenance. As BoingBoing noted earlier today, Aquiline’s page appears to be intermittently available—Google Chrome currently flags the domain as “not private” when we try to visit it. Proceeding through the warning, however, reveals a partially out-of-date site promising services “Coming fall 2022” alongside links to additional broken subpages for “solutions” like border security and “crowd counting.”

Aquiline’s red flags are apparently worth it for Washington. WSDOT estimates it spent over $815,000 on graffiti removal in 2023, after taking staff time and equipment costs into consideration. “That’s nearly 10,300 hours of labor spent covering 700,000 square feet of graffiti along our highways,” the department writes. “But that’s still not enough to remove all the graffiti that appears along our highways.”

Maybe the new $1 million in state funding will aid in WSDOT’s forever war against the graffitists. State funding stipulates that the department must submit a full report on their new campaign after spending the next few months “learning how these drones operate, how they apply paint and if they can cover graffiti.” It remains to be seen just how big an “if” that is.

WSDOT maintains the drone program only accounts for a “small portion of the [new] funding,” which also covers crew labor and paint. Presumably, more of those funds will cover the additional work required to send WSDOT’s new drone into battle. Given that it’s illegal to fly drones over active traffic lanes, the department noted it will need to block off lanes and oversee “rolling slowdown closures” while testing its new bot.

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