CHOKEPOINTS

Sullivan: Has tagging met its match with WSDOT’s ‘graffiti-battling’ drone?

May 7, 2024, 6:14 AM

graffiti drone...

Lakewood Maintenance Superintendent Michael Gauger with the prototype anti-graffiti drone. (Photo: Chris Sullivan, KIRO Newsradio)

(Photo: Chris Sullivan, KIRO Newsradio)

Taggers, you are on notice. The state of Washington is coming after you with a high-tech gadget: The world’s first graffiti-battling drone.

It doesn’t have a nickname or fancy acronym, but it’s packed with eight motors, 150 feet of hose, intelligent collision avoidance, two batteries and a six-foot nozzle. If taggers can get there, so can this bad boy.

“This is not your average buy-it-at-Costco drone,” WSDOT’s Mike Gauger said. “This is an industrial-grade aircraft with a six-foot-long wand connected to an airless sprayer that’s capable of lots of pressure.”

More from Chokepoints: Four-month closure just weeks away for Snohomish River Bridge in Everett

Most drone operators don’t have to worry about a nozzle spraying paint, which adds a whole new bunch of physics to the party, but Gauger is not your average drone operator. He’s the head of WSDOT’s Olympic Region Maintenance Unit and the man who decided to turn a drone into a sword against graffiti.

Gauger has worked with drones for years, using them in bridge maintenance and other applications, but never against graffiti. There are 10 drone pilots in the region, but only two others have the skills to join Gauger at these controls.

“You might be very good at flying one of those drones and have a lot of experience doing it, but it doesn’t qualify you to touch this one,” Gauger said. “It’s a different animal.”

And the reason is the hose that dangles below it. That’s not something most operators have even considered.

“It’s not just a matter of being a normal drone pilot,” Gauger said. “There’s an element of training that needs to go with the tethered aspect of it. Some of the tendencies of drones that people get used to are flying a drone until the battery gets weak and when it’s time, it knows to just come back and land. But a drone doesn’t know that it has a hose attached to it, so having that happen could be detrimental.”

Gauger and his crew have tested the drone five times. The first time over the biggest canvas in Tacoma — the giant wall along Interstate 5 (I-5) just north of Highway 16.

“The first tag was big, 10-12 feet long, and in short order, it was covered,” he said. “Everybody there was smiling.”

If you’re not familiar with that spot on I-5, it’s at the top of a very steep, landscaped hillside with no shoulder at the bottom. It just isn’t safe to put people up there.

“We’re never going to let our employees take the risks that graffiti artists take when they’re up there,” Gauger said.

More from Chris Sullivan: Rest area blues and its dire situation on the I-5 corridor

The drone will be out in Pierce and Thurston Counties for the rest of the year. For Gauger, it’s about finding out if this is the right move to keep his people safe and the roadways clean.

“We’re planning to continue to do our research and actively go out and use it when it makes sense to through the summer and fall,” he said. “By the end of the year, we will produce the results.”

As you would imagine, Gauger’s phone is ringing off the hook from transportation departments around the world to see how it’s going. This is the first graffiti-battling drone in operation, and the world is watching.

“Each time we go out the idea is to learn,” Gauger said. “Is this going to be an acceptable maintenance practice for day-to-day use?”

We shall see.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints here. You can also follow Chris on X, formerly known as TwitterHead here to follow KIRO Newsradio Traffic’s profile on X.

Chokepoints

US Route 2 trestle...

Chris Sullivan

Sullivan: Tussling with the future of the US Route 2 trestle

The US Route 2 trestle from Lake Stevens to Everett needs some TLC, and the state is looking for your input on its future.

2 days ago

Photo: A Washington State ferry pulls up to the dock on March 29, 2020 in Edmonds, Washington....

Julia Dallas

Why were Washington ferries out of service this weekend?

It's been a tough Memorial Day weekend for those using Washington ferries as many travelers have been faced with cancellations.

4 days ago

Image: Traffic on Interstate 5 passes through downtown on Nov. 28, 2013, in Seattle. Seattle, locat...

Steve Coogan

The holiday weekend is here, but traffic still could slow drivers down

AAA notes that traveling by car is appealing for many during a holiday weekend because of the flexibility it provides. But it brings traffic.

6 days ago

sound transit violent attacks...

Chris Sullivan

Sound Transit CEO on recent violent attacks: It’s ‘my job to restore confidence’ in public transit

Just how concerned are you about your safety while riding the light rail? Three violent attacks this year have many people concerned about crime on the trains.

7 days ago

Image: Members of the community hold oversized scissors as part of a ceremony to mark the completio...

Chris Sullivan

Sullivan: Oversized scissors, shovels used to celebrate I-405 project progress

The Washington State Department of Transportation used big scissors and more to celebrate the Interstate 405 project north of Bellevue.

9 days ago

Photo: Alaska Airlines planes at Sea-Tac Airport....

Julia Dallas

Why was Sea-Tac Airport so busy Sunday? Will it get worse?

Warmer weather means a busy summer travel season is ahead. Visitors may find longer than usual lines at Sea-Tac Airport and delays.

11 days ago

Sullivan: Has tagging met its match with WSDOT’s ‘graffiti-battling’ drone?