Opportunities for the commercial application of drones is set to continue to grow exponentially over the next few years, especially as the data capture method becomes widely adopted in many industrial sectors. It seems that around every corner there are businesses and individuals looking for a piece of the pie. There’s no denying that successfully flying a drone requires a certain level of skill (I dread to think how many drones were lost or stuck in trees on Boxing Day), but the requirements increase when the drone operator is being paid to do a job, and increases even further when they’re being asked to conduct complex industrial inspections in difficult environments.
Few companies exist which have the experience to carry out these types of industrial inspections safely, with confidence and success, every time. Below we share our top tips for large enterprises to consider when selecting a drone inspection provider:
1. Look for an inspection company specialising in the use of drones not a drone photography company
A drone photography company offers aerial photographs - great to take a picture of your house. A drone inspection company, however, flies close to a structure and takes images which allow a detailed assessment to be made on the condition of the structure, typically to a CVI (close visual inspection) standard. To make critical engineering decisions, you need the latter.
An inspection company who specialise in using drones will utilise a two person team – an experienced pilot controlling the position of the drone in the air and an inspection engineer with relevant inspection qualifications and experience, looking at a live video feed, controlling the camera to take the required images.
2. A CAA/FAA drone pilot licence does not equate to competency for complex inspections
Having a CAA/FAA drone pilot licence doesn’t mean the pilot can complete complex industrial inspections - you don’t gain much experience on a three-day classroom course. Flying a drone in a low-pressure environment to take a photo of the countryside, for example, is significantly simpler than flying offshore or close to high voltage powerlines. Specific training and experience is required for complex industrial inspections and the pilot MUST be able to fly the drone fully manually without its flight assist features such as GPS positioning.
Furthermore, pilots must maintain their skills. Flying a drone once every few months will not mean you are competent to complete complex work scopes. Look for a company that operates in multiple industries and geographies so you know their pilot skills are well maintained.
3. A quadcopter is typically not suitable for flying over your site
For industrial inspection work, a quadcopter is not suitable - as a minimum, you need a professional grade hexacopter and preferably an octocopter. This means you have a factor of safety should a rotor or three fail, and with an experienced pilot, the drone can be landed safely. You don’t want a drone descending unexpectedly at your site. Likewise, for increased safety look for operators using lightweight UAVs, the consequence of an incident with a 2kg drone is exponentially less than with a 20kg drone.
Additionally, look for companies with mature equipment maintenance procedures, who complete regular services, log faults and remove equipment from service until they are rectified. There is nothing more frustrating for a client that mobilising subcontractors to site (at great expense) and their equipment not working.
4. You need a qualified inspector with industry knowledge
There is no point in someone carrying out a structural inspection if they don’t know what they’re looking at. Make sure an engineer or a qualified inspector are on site as part of the inspection team and that they understand the structure being inspected. It is very expensive to remobilise a team to site if something has been missed.
5. In most instances, you want images not video
Most companies that do not have the skill set to capture the right areas of high detail photographs gather video from far away. It is much easier to do and requires no specialist knowledge. Somebody then has the unenviable task of reviewing this footage and trying to extract some sort of useful data. This takes 10 times as long to report and the video screen grabs are never as good as full resolution still images.
6. The most important thing is the report
For all clients, the most important thing is the report. Drones collect a huge volume of data, what will you do if you receive 1,000 raw images? Things to look for in a quality report: Are the images of a standard that you can make an assessment on the condition of the structure? Are the major defects identified, described and prioritised so you can quickly understand where to focus contact NDT or repairs? Is it clear where defects are located so they can be rectified? Ask to see previous reports, which will give you a fair idea if the provider can complete the scope of work to the standard required.
Offline reports are good, but in this age of advanced analytics and cloud software, tracking your asset’s condition usually needs more than that. Experienced and innovative UAV companies can also provide cloud based visual asset management software that stores and analyses the terabytes of data collected from drones, making reports easy to access and interpret.
7. Experience and scale matter
Make sure your supplier has done lots of similar projects before, has a relevant client list and good testimonials. For large enterprises, you also need a provider that can meet your requirements, your deadlines and can mobilise multiple teams and equipment, even internationally, if required.
8. Complete an aviation audit & understand any previous incidents
Drones are flying aircraft. The best people in your organisation to understand if the drone is being operated safely is your aviation department. Send them out to do an audit, which will quickly establish if the potential vendor is serious about what they do, safe, train their staff and have suitable procedures to be trusted on your sites.
Also ask about previous incidents. UAVs are still a fairly new technology most UAV operators especially ones that have been in existence for a number of years will have experienced some sort of incident where they have crashed a drone. This is not necessarily a negative reflection on the companies competence however what is important is that an operator is transparent about their incident rate, reporting and that the learnings from any incident strengthen the robustness of training and operating procedures.
About the author
Phil Buchan is Commercial Director at Cyberhawk, joining in 2010 as part of the founding management team. A Chartered Mechanical Engineer with a Master’s degree in structural engineering, he has researched and published papers on failure mechanisms of composite, concrete and steel structures. Phil has been at the forefront of introducing innovative UAV industrial inspection and asset management solutions in multiple sectors including upstream & downstream oil & gas, electricity transmission & distribution and thermal & renewable power generation.
About Cyberhawk Innovations
Cyberhawk is the world’s leading engineering company using drones for aerial inspection and surveying and a pioneer in the development of innovative visual asset management solutions. Cyberhawk created the UAV industrial inspection market in 2008 and has since completed more than 25 UAV inspection world firsts and assignments in in more than 25 countries. Headquartered in the UK, with offices in USA, Middle East and SE Asia, Cyberhawk conducts close visual and thermal inspections of industrial assets onshore and offshore with results delivered through an innovative visual asset management software platform, iHawk.