Updated: May 2021, August 2021, January 2022
The use of unmanned and, increasingly, completely automated drone inspection has already caused huge waves in the asset management sector. It’s not hard to see the benefits — a small, nimble drone can easily be sent to remote locations or into hard-to-access nooks and crannies.
Personnel can perform inspections from a safe distance, without using expensive ladders or scaffolding, and while remaining completely safe from falls. Large areas can be covered in much less time, even for more complicated inspections such as thermal imaging.
In the case that maintenance or a repair is needed, the technician can arrive at the problem location with a fault diagnosis already in mind. Resulting in Drones becoming a critical part of the overall asset management solutions.
So where and how are today’s companies using drones for asset inspection?
With solar farms experiencing exponential growth over the past decade, both in number and in size, efficiently inspecting them has become increasingly important.
Solar farms face issues with traditional inspection methods. They can cover large areas and are typically placed in remote, rural locations. Additionally, it is best to inspect solar panels thoroughly for defects is when the sun is at its strongest — tiring and even dangerous for workers at the best of times.
Drones can capture both standard visual images but also carry out thermal imaging to spot which panels are faulty and overheating. With drones, large areas of solar farm can be thoroughly inspected in a fraction of the time of a traditional human method.
Wind farms are another renewable seeing the benefits of drone inspection. Industrial wind turbine blades regularly top 115 ft (35 m) in length and tower height can exceed 250 ft (76 m) — giving total heights of over 365 ft (111 m). They really take the definition of “working at height” to a new level!
Drones easily bypass these problems. In just a short time, they can photograph the entire lengths of wind turbine blades and send the footage back to a technician on the ground, where it can later be pulled together and analysed for any structural defects. Inspection time is cut by up to 70% over a human inspection.
Railway infrastructure is an area where inspections simply cannot be allowed to slip. The United States Administration estimates that more than a third of all derailments are caused by defective track. Current regulations inspect every foot of track twice a week. But with hundreds of thousands of miles of railway track distributed over the entire country, manual inspection is impossibly time-consuming.
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), working with BNSF Railways, is making real progress improving regulations and allowing exemptions for drone use. While the results for visual inspection are promising, the short range of current commercial drones and the heaviness of ultrasound testing equipment — many track defects can’t be picked up by visual or infrared imaging methods — means there is much room for improvement.
Due to the large potential for complications and even loss of life, bridge infrastructure must be fully inspected on a regular basis and faults caught early.
Traditionally for a full inspection, the bridge in question would have to be partially or fully closed down, impacting businesses and productivity in the area for hours afterwards. Hard to reach areas would need to be inspected with ropes, mobile platforms or even expensive specialised vehicles (‘snoopers’).
Minnesota Department of Transport has begun using drones to carry out bridge inspections. Drones can be used to visually inspect all of these hard to reach areas while the technicians remain safely on the ground, without the expensive equipment or blow to local businesses.
Power lines and pylons are more critical pieces of infrastructure that require constant inspection and maintenance. As well as the falling risk to technicians, power lines and pylons are also dangerous electrical hazards. Add in their frequently remote locations — crossing mountain chains or thick forests — and you have an ideal situation for drone use.
Major utilities companies such as General Electric are already using drones to carry out power line inspections, and even in China’s mountainous Yunnan province the technology is being implemented. Technicians there say they could previously only inspect one or two pylons per day — now they are ten times more efficient.
Mobile Phone Towers
Mobile phone or cell towers fit all the criteria to make them ideal candidates for drone inspection — tall, dangerous structures, remote locations, hard-to-access areas. While a technician may still have to climb the tower itself to make a repair or perform maintenance, drone flights can do away with inspection-only climbs. Telecoms giant AT&T is already using drones for their aerial inspections.
An unexpected bonus? Protecting endangered wildlife. Current laws prohibit working on a tower if an endangered bird species are nesting there — a quick flyby by a drone can check if any new nests have appeared and if potential nests are currently occupied.
Oil & Gas
Inspecting oil and gas infrastructure, particular on and off-shore platforms and power generating plant, runs into many of the same issues as for bridges. Difficult to access spaces such as the underside of platforms, dangerous or live equipment such as flare stacks… always time-consuming, always putting a technician at risk.
Industry pioneer Cyberhawk work with oil and gas giants across the world to inspect industrial assets using drones, whether large platforms far out to sea or the cramped confines of a chemical tank. By using drones, they are able to carry out inspections that previously would have taken 6 men 6 weeks… in just 3-4 days.
From one type of pipeline to another… 20% of water in the UK is lost to leaks before it even reaches consumers’ homes. Problematic on our wet and rainy island, but far more dangerous in arid environments. The very factors that make water such a valuable resource in these locations — the baking heat and sun — make human inspection unfeasibly time-consuming and dangerous.
Professor Amin Al-Habaibeh, from the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University is pioneering the use of drones to detect water leaks over large areas. His research uses infrared technology to locate changes in humidity from the air. This high speed, the non-contact method allows drones to pinpoint the location of links so repairs can be carried out.
Buildings and Construction
We’ve seen a lot of examples in this list of inspecting damaged assets. But what about inspecting assets that don’t even exist yet?
Once a day, drones would fly over and around the site for the Sacramento Kings’ new stadium in California while it was still under construction. The visual footage would then be converted into a three-dimensional model, before being compared with the architectural plans via special software. Areas, where the project was falling behind schedule, could be quickly identified and brought back up to speed before impacting the rest of the delivery timeline.