Drones are an emerging technology with significant industrial potential, particularly in services. According to some estimates, commercial usage of drones will surpass US$ 7 billion by 2020. Over 50% of this is currently in applications such as aerial photography or film making, however a rapidly increasing number of companies are finding new uses in industry. For example, in the oil and gas industry inspections that used to take weeks now just take days or even hours to complete. Drones outfitted with thermal imaging and gas “sniffer” technology are used to inspect oil rigs and gas pipelines, while others are inspecting powerlines and wind turbines.
Applications based on scanning, inspection, monitoring or surveillance are increasing in breadth: In transportation, US railroad BNSF is testing drones for remote track and bridge inspection and air quality monitoring, helping the FAA devise rules for drone operations in the process. Network Rail in the UK is using drones as part of its Digital Railway/ORBIS project to digitize the country’s rail network in 3D, to improve track maintenance. Airlines Easyjet and Lufthansa have adopted drones as a tool for aircraft inspections.
Airlines need to regularly inspect aircraft for lightning damage, looking for signs such as burn marks or small holes on the exterior, a process which creates significant expensive downtime. By using a drone system called RISER (Remote Intelligent Survey Equipment for Radiation) developed by UK companies Blue Bear Systems Research and Createc, the process duration can be significantly cut down. The drone uses electro-optical, light detection and ranging sensors and has the ability to hover in indoor spaces such as hangars and autonomously avoid obstacles.
In mining, Rio Tinto is using drones to survey equipment and mining pits, while heavy machinery maker Caterpillar is exploring using drones for fleet vehicle and site management in the field. Caterpillar’s rival Komatsu has developed a system called “Smart Construction”, that integrates drones to provide highly accurate data collection and analysis using drone photography -a project that uses the services of Skycatch, a San Francisco startup. This is how Komatsu explains the rationale behind Smart Construction:
When our customers of construction and civil engineering receive a contract for construction and obtain completion drawings from their clients, they survey the jobsites before construction, compare that survey data with the completion drawings to determine what needs to be done and then develop construction plans. Typically, surveying takes two surveyors who can survey a few hundred points a day. As those points are located a few meters away from each other, the surveyors repeat the same task as they move on the jobsite. In some cases, construction companies compare 2-D survey drawings with completion drawings and then estimate their work, which can often result in big mistakes in actual work volume. We can propose a new way of surveying by using leading-edge ICT, for example, the use of survey-specific drones made by Skycatch. Under ideal conditions, drones can automatically fly over the jobsites for about 15 minutes at each flight, surveying a few million points a few centimeters away from each other. If needed, we can also laser scan the sites for high-precision 3-D surveys. While surveying the sites, we receive the contract from customers to convert their 2-D completion drawings into 3-D drawings. The differences between these 3-D drawings and 3-D survey data represent the areas where their work is needed…
After completion of construction work, customers will have maintenance work at many sites for a long period of time onward. As all data of construction undertaken are stored… we are considering a service to make that data available, as needed, to concerned customers and other people. For example, when their completed jobsites are damaged by natural disaster, we can survey the sites by using drones, compare the survey data with the completion data before the damage, and quickly confirm the areas needed for reconstruction. We believe that we should be able to start reconstruction soon after a disaster by remotely controlling unmanned intelligent Machine Control equipment not too far into the future.
In these applications, the value from drones is, on the one hand, the more accurate, faster, cheaper and safer inspections, surveying and monitoring. On the other, it is through the data generated, its analysis and integration in decision making and process management. And as can be seen from this video from Airware, another San Francisco drone services startup, which counts both Caterpillar and GE as investors, drone companies are messaging their analytics capabilities as much as their flight capabilities, acquiring data analytics firms and increasingly offering vertical integrated “solutions”.
As drone manufacturers search for more applications to broaden the market, drones are becoming more elaborate, with more new features. Here for example, are drones with a protective frame designed to inspect inside closed spaces such as storage tanks or boilers by a company called Flyability, an EPFL spinn-off based in Lausanne, Switzerland:
But drones are not limited to scanning and inspections. They can do other things as well. For example, BT is experimenting with drones to provide temporary internet coverage to battlefields, disaster zones and other hard to reach areas. So if networks are impaired by floods, the company could assess the damage and then provide internet to the area through tethered drones and balloons.
Chinese drone manufacturer DJI has launched a drone for crop spraying, which it claims is “40 times more efficient” than manual spraying, despite having just 12 minutes of flight time. It can be even more than that if it concentrates spraying in areas that need it most based on aerial precision surveys.
A few years ago, Lockheed Martin demonstrated a semi-autonomous system for fire spotting and fire fighting
The Stalker XE can fly for 8 hours at a time, day and night and in all weather, and the K-MAX is also capable of anytime, all-weather operation, meaning that it could possibly conduct water drops in the middle of a monsoon, if necessary. This is hugely significant for the ability to put out fires fast and efficiently as well as for fire fighters’ safety. Information on other fire fighting drones can be found here. In addition, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a drone system –Unmanned Aerial System for Firefighting (UAS-FF) “to enhance fire ignition capabilities, while significantly reducing the risk to the firefighters. The UAS-FF precisely drops delayed ignition spheres and can be used to ignite fire lines in areas that are otherwise too difficult or dangerous to access with traditional methods”. Also in an unorthodox manner a Chinese company is using fire spewing drones to burn rubbish off powerlines.
And while drones are not doing repairs just yet, the University of Leeds received a £4.2 million award to lead part of a national infrastructure research project in the U.K. with the vision of using small robots to create swarms that will be able to zip around cities, keeping out of the way of people while proactively identifying weak infrastructure and making repairs before anything actually goes wrong.
Finally of course there are deliveries. UPS, Amazon and DHL and many startups have been experimenting with delivery drones for a while now, but this is also possible in industrial or commercial environments. Mearsk, for example, is considering using drones to deliver spare parts (medicines or cookies) to sea-going vessels, offshore oil rigs or other remote locations.
The rate of adoption of drones in industrial applications however is still low. Before the technology can properly scale and expand the range and scope of potential applications, a number of challenges need to be overcome. For one, costs are still high and are mainly driven by the need for human operators. In construction, mining and similar areas, pilots and maintenance teams account for up to 90% of drone operating costs. At present drones must operate in Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) mode in most applications– drone pilot is able to maintain visual contact at all times and is directly in control of flight operations – in accordance with most countries’ regulations. For regulators to allow transition to Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) mode, where drones are not under direct pilot control, a number of things need to happen, including better autonomy capabilities and automation of operations. For this, drone infrastructure will need to be developed, potentially similar to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, where drones would be able to dock, get recharged, run diagnostics and health-checks and be redeployed. Cost effective and safe drone operations and a broad range of applications -and therefore the rate of drone adoption- will thus depend on a supporting infrastructure and air traffic control systems which have yet to be developed. At present a small number of both start-ups and major companies (mainly from the logistics sector) are working on this problem.
As already mentioned, a few major industrial companies have invested in drone technology, including GE and Caterpillar in a drone service provider called Airware. In the following video, GE Ventures explain their rationale for this investment -looking at drones essentially as airborne sensors, which embedded in a greater technology/IoT ecosystem can help improve productivity of field services for companies managing large and often remote assets. Inspections, for example, can be more frequent, more accurate, safer and cheaper to help prevent failures (data analytics), while actual repairs can be done faster with greater precision based on collected, analyzed data when required.
Finally, here are some further interesting uses of drones from Drones-at-Work and others
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