by Terrence O’Hanlon

Drones are a game changer and hold vast potential for streamlining and reducing the cost of inspection and monitoring tasks associated with reliability and asset performance.

Back in the mid-nineties, I worked with a small group of 10 engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, that eventually became AT&T Worldnet Services. Back then, the possibilities of today’s Internet were in their first minute and it was exciting to be part of it.

Fast free connected information, easy to use communication tools, image sharing, online video and social connection tools are now ubiquitous and seem normal in our everyday lives. Imagine if you had been part of the first minute of the Internet. What would you have created? Even if you are old enough, you may have missed it because things that change our everyday lives are hard to imagine before they actually create the change.

Woody Allen says that 80 percent of success is showing up, and now you have a second chance to show up during the first minute of a technology that will change the future in a big way. I am referring to drones. Drone technology has been democratized and it’s now fast, cheap and out of control. It’s like the Internet all over again.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) rules for using drones commercially are approved, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the economic impact of the industry could reach $13.6 billion in the first three years and climb to $82.1 billion by 2025. Part of that impact will be the addition of 103,000 jobs, paying a minimum of $40,000 for those involved in manufacturing the drones, and more for the engineers and operators. Equipped with new capabilities, such as integrated audio and text with real-time video feeds and the ability to overlay images over existing footage through augmented reality, next generation drones could have significant commercial value for businesses across industry segments.

While commercial and civil aviation are tightly regulated, inexpensive, sophisticated drones are being built and sold online by the thousands.

According to Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, Inc., drones are not just remote controlled aircraft; instead, they’re computer controlled unmanned aircraft capable of autonomous flight following GPS waypoints and otherwise executing pre-programmed missions and controlling onboard cameras. A decade ago, this was the sole domain of the military. Today, you can buy one for less than $550.

There are several kinds of drones, including helicopters and airplanes.

Airplanes fly missions that require longer time periods and operators must know how to land successfully. Helicopters are great for close-up inspections and monitoring that requires stationary views.

Drones like Gimball are designed not to be disturbed by collisions. It uses obstacles to find its way instead of avoiding them, offering a simple solution to a complex problem. Gimball can safely fly indoors and in complex environments, is easy to fly and can be operated close to humans. It solves multiple challenges in inspection of industrial facilities!

There is even a pocket drone, a collapsible, three rotor aerial vehicle by AirDroids that folds up small enough to easily fit in a backpack, but its three independent propeller motors are powerful enough to carry a GoPro camera.

These key features are available on most drones:

  • They are lightweight units, typically ranging from two to 15 pounds, with the ability to easily fit in the back of a car.
  • They have highly efficient propulsion systems that enable quiet hovering capability and flight durations typically ranging from 30 to 200 minutes.
  • They can include dual forward and side-look high resolution color and thermal imagery cameras with image stabilization, which is ideal for video recording during day and night.
  • They have a line of sight ranging from 0.5 miles to 10 miles.
  • They require minimal use of runway strips, with options for vertical takeoff and landing.
  • Data connectivity is typically through low power, digital, wireless and video links.

As sales of drones gain traction and they are used by more companies, is demand for talent skilled in drone manufacturing, technology, or operation also growing? In January, there were 164 job openings that refer to the term “drones,” according to data from WANTED Analytics. While that may not seem like many, this is a 32 percent increase when comparing January 2015 to January 2014.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus is one of a small but growing group of colleges and universities offering a degree in unmanned aircraft systems. The program started only three years ago with about 11 students and that has grown to about 230 students since.

Industrial Applications for Drones

Recently, the FAA approved BP and California-based manufacturer Aero- Vironment’s request to fly the Puma AE UAS (unmanned aircraft system) at BP’s Prudhoe Bay Oil Field on Alaska’s North Slope. It’s the first time the FAA has authorized the commercial operation of a UAS over land in the U.S. The Puma is a radio-controlled, fixed wing vehicle 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) long with a wingspan of 2.8 meters (9.2 feet).

Made of ultralight Kevlar, it weighs less than seven kilograms (13.5 pounds). Other fixed wing UAVs are autonomous, which means their route, speed and height are all pre-programmed ahead of flight. Both versions can fly for around three-and-a-half hours and remain stable in winds of up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) an hour. This makes them ideal for checking pipelines and mapping land outcrops for exploration purposes.

There are also radio-controlled, multi-rotor UAVs – effectively mini helicopters – that are smaller and have a shorter range. These are perfect for checking vertical structures, such as flare stacks and cooling towers, as well as flat roofs and electrical lines. BP is also investigating their potential use inside vessels and tanks. The beauty of a multi-rotor UAV is that it can collect accurate data from a structure at a distance of seven to nine meters (23-30 feet), without having to shut it down.

Bentley Systems Inc.’s Acute3D develops and sells Smart- 3DCapture®, a software solution allowing you to produce high resolution 3D models from simple photographs of as-built 3D models of your facility captured by a drone with a camera in a simple and inexpensive way.

According to FLIR Systems, Inc., thermal imaging camera drones are also being used for the thermographic inspection of inaccessible buildings or electric power lines, as well as for firefighting and law enforcement jobs.

The days of small plane flyovers for infrared roof inspections and underground steam pipe mapping and leak detection are certainly numbered as drones make a powerful economic argument for their use.

The Electricity Research Pool at Finnish Energy Industries and Sharper Shape Ltd. have demonstrated drones with advanced sensors in public test flights as part of a research project.

The robotic copter is equipped with a laser scanner, cameras and aviation safety systems and has the capability for long-distance beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) inspection flights. The laser scanner maps the terrain and forms an accurate 3D model of the components of the power network, as well as the surrounding buildings, forest and vegetation.

The purpose of the study was to demonstrate the technical viability and cost-efficiency of drone-based inspections to the electric industry. Drones enable the advanced collecting of needed data for identifying and mitigating risks in power distribution.

Drones from a company called Skycatch, Inc. and more established companies are monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) became the first utility in the USA to gain approval from the FAA to test-drive drones. The utility has been granted a special airworthiness certificate that allows it to operate drones for research, testing and training flights in eastern San Diego County. Test areas are located in zones measuring 2.5 miles long by a half mile wide and include no businesses or residences.

When comparing costs, helicopters are no competition. According to a local San Diego news station, two drones equipped with cameras cost a total of $6,000. Leasing a helicopter would require $2,000 per hour.

Are you getting a sense that this article is not even scratching the surface when it comes to the potential for drones in industrial inspections and applications where humans were previously in harm’s way or the cost and time of using existing transport were cost prohibitive?

As Woody states, success is achieved by showing up. How do you plan to show up for the quickly passing “first minute” of the exciting new technology revolution?

Terrence O’Hanlon, CMRP, is the CEO and Publisher of Reliabilityweb.com®, RELIABILITY® Magazine and Uptime® Magazine. Mr. O’Hanlon is the acting Executive Director of the Association for Maintenance Professionals (AMP) and was a voting member of the US TAG (PC251) for ISO 55000 - ASTM E53 Asset Management Standards Committee. Terrence is certified in Asset Management by the Institute of Asset Management.

For more information on drones in the industry, see these articles on Reliabiityweb.com:

Breakthrough Technology for Maintenance Inspections

Drone Inspection for IBM Maximo

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