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The Sky’s the Limit at AWE

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) operates from four sites across the UK and has some of the most advanced research, design and production facilities in the world. AWE has begun upgrading and enhancing its infrastructure, some of which is aging, creating an excellent opportunity to introduce drone technologies to support ongoing care and maintenance programs. This article takes you on a journey, from the introduction of these technologies in 2017 to the successful drone operation AWE operates today.

Sowing the Seed

In April 2017, I approached AWE’s senior management team with a proposal to embrace the use of drone technologies across its operations. It included the benefits of introducing these technologies, such as safety, cost, efficiency and overall commitment to innovation, all keywords that will get the ear of most senior managers striving to continuously improve.

Once I had gained the initial green light to proceed to the next stage of “what’s your business plan,” I started mapping out my strategy. This included the following staged approach:

  • Conduct more research to gain a better understanding of the technologies and its uses.
  • Clearly map out the opportunities and intended applications.
  • Identify the key stakeholders, both internal and external to the organization.
  • Formulate a communications plan and present the key benefits to a captive audience.
  • Calculate costs while confirming a healthy return on investment.
  • Confirm and secure an overwhelming support to proceed.

This may all appear quite straightforward, but the introduction of emerging technologies is challenging. Add to that having to convince employees, customers, decision-makers and the nonbelievers that the use of such technologies really does deliver undisputable benefits. In other words, achieve the sell and the support will grow.

Managing the Culture and Expectations

Even though unmanned aircraft have been in use since the 1920s, it was not until the turn of this century that their use in the workplace became truly appreciated. Back in 2017, when the plan to introduce a drone service at AWE was hatched, not everyone in the organization was ready to accept it. We would often hear the cry, “Are you off to play with your toys again” or “have you crashed it yet?” For a new drone team trying to improve safety and deliver real benefits, these comments were difficult to ignore and just made us more committed to realize our vision and succeed. We were able to build momentum and support through promoting our successes via magazine articles, internal and external presentations, our internal collaborative platform, and inviting ourselves to carefully selected meetings. With the ongoing support and belief from our operations engineering team, gradual acceptance grew on the use of drones as credible work equipment, opening up new opportunities that had previously not been considered. We had now gained the support and it was time to reap the benefits.

Reaping the Benefits

Figure 2

It may have taken five years to grow from a seed to the blossoming service it is today, but it was so worth it. With a resolute and committed team around us, my wingman, Matt King, and I have built a drone service that has significantly improved the way we manage our assets at AWE. This includes using thermographic cameras to inspect our high-level assets for overheating, identifying the source of roof leaks, and pinpointing heat loss from our buildings and steam networks. We inspect our assets following storm damage or unplanned events leading to high-level damage.

We also conduct sitewide inspections of all our 1,200+ facilities on an 18-month rotational program, capturing baseline images and overlaying these with future inspection images. We inspect all our lightning protection systems using drones to check for bird caging of cabling, erosion of couplings and integrity of all connections. We schedule missions to capture our assets in 3D visual models and provide orthomosaic maps offering a photorealistic representation of an area that can produce surveyor-grade measurements of topography, infrastructure and buildings. We carry special sensors on our drones to measure such things as radiation levels in or around our assets, and we have collaborated with emergency services during exercises and for real-life events. We even supported our ecology team with selecting suitable nest boxes for our visiting peregrine falcons.

The use of drones to inspect assets should not be a reaction to something that has gone or is going wrong. Drones have allowed AWE to improve the reliability of its assets through adopting a preventive maintenance strategy. Collaborating with its closest partners in the U.S. and in the UK, AWE has established an aerial inspection service that has significantly improved safety, delivered tangible cost savings and demonstrated its commitment to innovation and smarter ways of working.

The Future

The bringing together of complementary technologies, such as unmanned ground vehicles, quadrupeds, crawlers and remote operating vehicles, will take engineering at AWE to yet another level. This, coordinated with technologies, such as drone-in-a-box, artificial intelligence (AI), aerial nondestructive testing (NDT) and hyperspectral mapping/analysis, embraces our commitment to continuously improve the way we operate. The sky truly is the limit at AWE.

Richard Hare

is UAV Services Lead at AWE. Prior to AWE, Richard spent a number of years in Her Majesty’s Service in the Army Air Corps. Later, he embarked on several years of further education while working full time for a safety footwear manufacturer. Richard achieved his Master of Business Administration (MBA) Degree in 1998. He secured a board position as sales director for a successful PPE and workwear manufacturer and supplier before being approached by AWE to consider a safety management position.

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