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.”

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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.

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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.


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