How drones are poised to reshape asset inspection forever

by Measure Australia

Most companies will tell you that surveying and inspecting infrastructure assets is a notoriously difficult task. Whether it be oil rigs, mine locations, antennae, or chimneys the location is often remote or difficult to access. This inevitably leads to manual inspection methods being either time consuming or dangerous - or both.

These are the situations where the flexibility of drones can be indispensable. Instead of a technician having to trek kilometres into the wilderness, or risk the danger of hazardous climbing to check chimneys, rooves or wind turbines, a simple camera mounted drone can solve all these problems by remotely capturing high resolution footage from the field directly to an experienced inspector. Or even better, the drone itself can be outfitted with advanced LiDAR sensors and enabled with analytics to inspect, and even make assessments on its own. In the near future, they may even be able to carry out maintenance themselves.

In short, UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) can access areas and spaces that are either too remote, too inconvenient, or too dangerous to access currently with manual inspections while still allowing the asset to remain online. This can be managed within line-of-sight or via extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) capability.

Drones are a relatively new, but quickly developing technology, that is proving highly adaptable and beneficial across several commercial, manufacturing, and industrial sectors. They have already been effective in mining, offshore drilling, real estate and local government when it comes to infrastructure and asset inspection. Every day the benefits of integrating drones into infrastructure asset management processes are becoming undeniable. Drone technology is a new and innovative area with great potential. It is also highly adaptable, so those willing to get in early stand to reap the biggest rewards.

A technology that is starting to take off.

If you start talking 'drones,' most people's initial perceptions are limited. Either hobbyists buzzing a nervous neighbourhood with aerial toys, or of military and law enforcement agencies utilising the more obvious surveillance features of the technology. Commercial uses don't immediately come to mind even though these are becoming commonplace. In 2017 the global commercial drone market was valued at roughly 2.4 Billion AUD. By 2022 it is projected to rise as high as 9.8 Billion AUD, a four-fold increase. That translates to over 15 million units shipped.

There has always been a solid base of recreational use, but it's in the areas of business and research that we have seen the greatest potential for growth. For example, drones have been adapted by real estate agents to supply high definition aerial footage of their properties not only for presentations to potential buyers, but also for routine maintenance and inspection checks. On a more altruistic note, they are also used by conservationists to monitor wildlife and wilderness areas. The potential uses are limited only by the inventiveness and imagination of the individual or organisation involved.

Then there is the '4Ds' of drone usage concept. The idea is that drones are ideally suited for use with asset inspection situations that meet the Dull, Dirty, Distant, and Dangerous criteria. This makes them extremely useful in the fields of asset inspection, particularly in the transportation, energy, and mining sectors.

The key to a simple and cost-effective business future

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) offer the potential to slash operating costs, optimise savings and hone performance among asset operators and industrial services companies. This creates a competitive edge.

A perfect example of this is the offshore oil and gas industry where several high-profile companies have realised the potential of drone technology and embraced it. Three of the industry's largest companies (Shell, BP, and Statoil), have already incorporated UAS's into their inspection process. They have combined the thermal, video, and high definition image recognition data obtained by the drones with automated data analysis to cut inspection times from 2 months to 5 days. They have achieved these dramatic results without impacting normal operations.

Encouraged by this initial success, the industry has extended UAV asset inspection to other infrastructure assets such as chimneys, and buildings. This is all done under close collaboration with an industry service expert such as Measure Australia.

While it seems obvious to associate the benefits outlined here with reduced operating costs, it's hard to put an exact figure on savings due to UAV technology being so new, and the nascent industry being in its infancy. Despite this, initial results show great potential. Inspection costs of onshore wind turbines can be reduced by 50% per turbine. Assessments of oil storage tanks can be completed days faster than with traditional manual methods. It is the same with chimney flue inspections which, until now, have required several days of shutdown to complete. These can now be completed in hours with a saving of up to 90% and no risk to personnel.

The benefits of getting in the game now

So, with the benefits and success of UAV inspections now becoming clear, and with the word spreading to other operators such as pipeline constructors and rail companies, now is the time to get on board.

As with any new technology there are challenges, and the market is still in a fragmented state. With few established operators, and start-ups rapidly coming on board, choosing the right provider for the unique needs of your business is critical. Aviation agencies are still in the process of regulating drone use, with regular incremental changes that professional drone services businesses must stay abreast of. Rather than being a problem, this can be used to advantage by any business willing to jump onboard. By adopting this new technology and partnering with experienced drone service providers now, companies will be able to work with UAV industry pioneers to shape the nascent industry. They will be able to help in the formulation of new regulations and gain a competitive edge by harnessing the technologies full potential.

The potential of the drone

With every new and exciting technology comes the prospect of its rapid improvement and development. With early adoption comes the likelihood of being up and running and ahead of the curve as competitors scramble to catch up. The prospects for future developments in UAV asset inspection provide a compelling reason to act now. Advances in battery technology to include solar, or gas power systems will improve range and flight time. Near continuous operation is a possibility if solar recharging is combined with a gas back up.

With continuous operation, and the addition of rapidly developing AI technology, comes the advantage of a continuous flow of data. The AI will enable real-time analysis while swarms of drones, under the guidance of shared GPS, will combine data points for increased accuracy leading to increasingly complex tasks being able to be performed. These factors, along with rapidly improving GPS technology and miniaturisation, will soon lead to autonomous drone operation. Imagine swarms of drones independently inspecting assets and infrastructure. Prototypes are already being trialed.

A simple path

So, what does this mean for a company interested in pursuing this potentially lucrative new technology? How can drones be harnessed in the pursuit of improved asset management? An approach involving a 'proof of concept' pilot project would be an easy, low risk path to take. Combine that with a network-based approach that leverages existing market knowledge and you have your answer. A project team in consultation with an industry expert such as Measure Australia would be ideal. MA can assist you in building an aerial data capture, processing and utility function to assist operations and forward planning. Partnership with MA outsources regulator and industry association liaison and approvals, so that non-specialists can avoid the increasing penalties levied for non-compliance. MA can further advise of available technologies, the possibilities they enable, and explore and demonstrate effectiveness. They can also advise on the creation of best practice and appropriate KPIs, processing requirements and integrations, while advising to make the programme deliver positive ROI and make it all work for you. They can then bring in Asseti, which is Measure Australia's AI/ML data processing platform to further streamline the process and expand reporting capabilities. 

A shift in the way things get done

Drone-based asset inspection is poised to take over as the new standard in the industry. The technology is too uniquely suited to its task to become a discarded business fad. By getting onboard at the starting point you get to maximise savings and get a head start on the competition, with a specialist organisation that possesses the experience and high-end capture and processing hardware to deliver high-quality repeatable insights. 

Contact Measure Australia now, and be a part of the change.

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