Industrial Drone Inspection of Infrastructure and Its Pros

Industrial Drone, it must be said, is still in it’s rudimentary stages of development but is still being employed increasingly for commercial tasks. It all started out with drones luring aficionados to be used as toys for a fun-filled leisure time. However, ever since that initial phase, drones have evolved into intricate aerial machines that employ the most advanced of technologies available to inspect infrastructure for repair, maintenance and construction purposes. Development in important components such as sensors, radio controlled gizmos, and the compact sizes of computing devices have played a massive role in their growth as reliable commercial aircrafts.

Radio controlled drones are a great option to deploy sophisticated sensors to carry out drone inspection of infrastructure as well as industrial units. Having said that, it is a fact that drones have not been able to get as much mainstreamed as one would like in the industrial domain. Here are some of the advantages that one gets by using drones as inspection devices:

  • Inspecting ostensibly inaccessible areas
  • Ensuring preventive repair and maintenance
  • Enabling access to areas that are a risk to health and safety of humans
  • Incredibly quick response time
  • Swift on-site deployment
  • Decreased downtime

Drones can be integrated with infrared thermography alongside traditional high definition cameras to conduct sub-surface monitoring. This is accomplished by the drone as it identifies surfaces that are warmer than the others and hence determines the structural health of certain areas. Areas with defects tend to hinder the flow of heat and seem hotter than their surroundings.

This post is geared towards exploring the numerous key areas where drone inspection solutions could prove to be game changing and cost-effective.

Drone Wind Turbine Inspection

Fossil fuels will not be available always as they are typically termed as non-renewable forms of energy. As time passes, they are eventually going to become way expensive and their retrieval could result in irreversible damage to our ecosystem. Hydro, solar and wind energy resources are things of the future and most of the countries are investing their financial and temporal resources in order to gain access to these resources of renewable energy. Wind turbines have become popular over the past few years and need to be examined via safe and cost-effective mechanisms.

Owing to their large size and location in far flung areas, wind turbines are not easy to access. Traditional monitoring techniques involve cherry pickers, hydraulic cranes, service platforms and rope descent. There are certain risks associated with each of their approaches. It can be quite time consuming, expensive and incredibly dangerous to use heavy machinery or climbing up and down with ropes. This is where drone inspection solutions provide us an edge over manual techniques for inspection.

By employing drones that follow a preprogrammed trajectory, almost twice the number of wind turbines can be inspected. Typically, two to five wind turbines can be inspected using traditional inspection techniques. This can be increased to ten to twelve inspections thanks to the modern drone technology.

Inspection of infrastructure with drones comes with plenty of cost saving. It costs around a few thousand dollars to inspect a wind turbine manually. The costs can be reduced to as low as 80% of this figure by banking on a semi-automated drone inspection approach with the pilot playing a pivotal role in the entire process.

A lot more reliable and usable kind of data can be retrieved via drones in contrast to that obtained via manual methods. Drones can reach the turbine blade till the optimal safest distance and circumambulate around it to cover the entire surface area. A three dimensional dynamic model of the wind turbine can be conjured thanks to this data; thereby getting a degree of detail that is not at all possible with manual techniques.

There are plans being thought out by professionals to automate the entire drone inspection process in order to reduce the need for specialized training to operate drones. We will soon be witnessing drones that take off autonomously, capture high resolution aerial imagery of the entire turbine blade and get back to their original point of takeoff in a matter of just a few minutes. The turbine blades will not be even required to be stopped; thereby minimizing the downtime of the unit. Here is a short video of wind turbine drone inspection.

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Drone Pipeline Inspection

Pipelines along with their associated support paraphernalia is traditionally located in remote or offshore areas making them quite hard to reach. There are risks of massive loss to revenue or damage to the ecosystem in case of any untoward situation such as malfunctioning, accidents or terrorist attacks. Such events of catastrophic magnitude can disrupt international oil and gas transportation.

Safety concerns are the primary driver behind inspection of gas and oil pipelines. The international regulatory pressure on the oil industry to enhance the operational safety and integrity of pipelines has been immense of late. Countries are looking forward to bolster pipeline security.

Pipelines need to be examined periodically to assess their physical conditions and operational capacities to reduce the risk of leakage and spillage. Nominal operating points are identified and any changes beyond safe limits are taken care of in pipeline monitoring. It is important that any leakage or spillage is detected as soon as possible to prevent any serious repercussions.

Legacy inspection methods such as visual inspection are carried out via foot patrols, or deploying light aircrafts or helicopters. Inspection techniques that involve humans can turn out to be extremely expensive. Automated approaches involve the use of high sensitivity sensors to gauge pressure, acoustics and temperature. However, there is always an underlying risk of damage to such sensors or acquisition of inaccurate information with these sensors.

Pipeline security and safety can be bolstered by integrating the use of small sized aircrafts with traditional monitoring methods. This can also result in enhanced productivity. The drone can be programmed to carry out a certain inspection task with the help of numerous sensors. Pipe inspection and identification of hydrocarbon leaks can be such activities which can be accomplished by incorporating passive and active sensors in UAVs to retrieve useful information.

Drone technology is still in the infancy of its development and autonomous drone inspection systems are yet ot be materialized. Having said that, even the currently available technology can serve as a massive support or even as a compatible alternative to traditional manual inspection methods such as foot patrols and aerial surveys. Infrastructure can be examined up close and periodically thanks to drones. As sensors for detection of hydrocarbon leakage or spillage become smaller in size, the use of drones for inspection purposes will gain more and more popularity.

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Drone Infrastructure Inspection

Safety concerns along with continuity in production are a few factors that are important when it comes to inspection of large installations. There are obvious economic and environmental repercussions linked to the monitoring of large buildings and facilities. This is traditionally accomplished with the bland and tedious task of manual inspection. Drones provide imagery to professionals who can subsequently figure out the areas that need repair; thereby reducing the time consumed and finances spent.

Drones provide high resolution images, video footages and conduct laser scanning thanks to their sophisticated technology and hence ensure thorough infrastructure inspection. Drones can access seemingly hard-to-reach areas and retrieve low elevation data capture that is not possible with legacy aircrafts. The integration of intricate sensors such as survey grade LIDAR provides a reliable and portable platform for accurate scanning of large structures such as bridges.

Inspection of railway lines in hilly terrains and far flung areas is a great example of the efficacy of drones. Periodic railway line monitoring is required to detect and identify potential hazards, analyze vulnerability and strategize mitigation of these risks. Landslides are a perennial risk to railway lines in far flung regions which can hamper the operations of railways.

Traditionally, an aerial work platform or under-bridge inspection vehicle is deployed to inspect bridges. Ladders and ropes can also be utilized to inspect smaller bridges. The techniques used depend on the kind of bridge, the amount of access needed and the ability to block lanes of traffic. The options used notwithstanding, inspection costs and associated risks are always a bottleneck in the inspection process. It costs dearly to operate and maintain aerial platforms and snoopers. Specialized training and sufficient experience is required to pull of rope inspection. Additional data can be retrieved by drones using infrared scanners for monitoring bridges with drones.

Drones can be used to inspect infrastructure round the clock. They can also be used in rainy weather or mildly windy conditions. Drones can also be configured to patrol a preprogrammed trajectory; thereby making the inspection process semi-autonomous.

Power industry has also taken note of the tremendous development in drone technology and is unearthing ways and means to deploy drones to monitor power transmission lines. Long distance images using telescopes and manual visual inspection are the traditional inspection techniques when it comes to power lines. With the help of drones, safety and financial concerns can be made to rest.

Typically, a team comprising a couple of individuals carries out foot patrol from one tower to another to monitor power lines. Binoculars or infrared and corona detection cameras are used to carry out visual inspection. These monitoring methodologies while being effective are only suitable for surfaces visible from the ground. This can be quite complicated in far flung areas where towers are not accessible and the terrain between towers is rugged.

Fixed or rotor winged aircrafts can be used for aerial monitoring with a pilot, an inspection and a recorder; albeit with very low efficiency. Manned aircrafts are quite expensive to operate and maintain and are a viable option only when it comes to large networks or in inaccessible areas.

Manned aerial inspection can be substituted with robotic drones which are safer to operate and do not cost a fortune. The issues related to image stabilization, pole tracking and automatic defect detection are still inherent in drones. However, inspection of power transmission lines via drones can be quicker than foot patrols and provides accurate results in contrast to manned helicopter monitoring.

Drones, in addition to being used for monitoring power lines in the visible spectrum, can also be equipped with thermal sensors to detect malfunctions in the power lines. Defective areas offer higher impedance and hence are hotter than their surroundings. By using a simultaneous stream from both a thermal and conventional video camera, a defective area can be spotted and video footage can be captured.

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The costs and time involved in the inspection of closed spaced such as reservoirs or boilers can be significantly reduced by drones. Drones can be loaded with LED lights and cameras for exceptional image quality during remote visual inspections. The fact that they can be deployed in a matter of few minutes and the relevant inspection can be accomplished within the blink of an eye render them as a compatible alternative to manual inspection techniques. Professionals and experts can plan maintenance in an effective manner by utilizing the data acquired via drones which results in reduced downtime and costs.

Aerial inspection using drones can save temporal as well as financial resources while ensuring routine inspections, enhanced awareness of the prevalent system conditions and immediate detection of malfunctions. Drones can access ostensibly inaccessible locations; thereby allowing experts to respond immediately in contrast to using traditional manual techniques that consume a lot of time and cost dearly.

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