Cyberhawk has been featured in the March edition of Professional Engineering Magazine, the official publication of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Hear from our Commercial Director Philip Buchan, along with PwC and the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC), on how UAVs fit in to global inspection and maintenance programmes:
Drones offer great potential for inspecting infrastructure, from windfarms to pipelines, and monitoring construction sites.
Drones are swooping into more and more applications. In recent months, there have been reports of drones delivering blood bags to remote hospitals, searching for landmines, and pollinating flowers. And the US Army wants to introduce the 3D printing of mission-specific drones.
Widespread publicity has been given to the ambitions of companies such as Amazon and Google to employ the technology to deliver packages. Now, industries are opting to use drones for yet another application – surveillance.
Several sectors, including construction and windfarms, are using drones to monitor the progress and operations of their sites. The primary use is to supervise projects and to raise alerts of any maintenance requirements. Drones can provide high-quality data for the management of assets situated in remote locations.
PwC, a network of 157 firms that specialises in assurance, advisory and tax services, has launched a global centre of excellence in Poland, a facility that focuses on the use of drone technology and data analytics in business. PwC offers drone flights through contractors to several industries, but it also offers an analytical service from the photogrammetry that the drones will capture. Poland was the first country to introduce a complete legal framework and institutions to regulate the commercial use of drones.
According to a report by PwC, entitled Clarity from Above, the global market for drone-powered business solutions is potentially worth £101.8 billion. The infrastructure industry alone could account for £36.2 billion worth of prospective applications. The agriculture and transport industries could be worth £25.9 billion and £10.4 billion respectively. These three sectors are deemed to offer the best prospects for drone applications.
Julian Smith, global transport and logistics leader at PwC, believes that drones offer many practical solutions. “Companies such as online retailers, food delivery chains and infrastructure operators are constantly investigating solutions that can reduce costs, decrease reaction time and improve continuity of operations,” he says. “Drones have great potential to deliver on all those metrics.”
Piotr Romanowski, advisory leader for central and eastern Europe at PwC, says: “Drone technology is only now entering commercial use beyond recreational or experimental applications. This is driven by a combination of technological development, creation of regulatory frameworks and growing readiness of companies to adopt drone-powered solutions. The range of potential use cases across industries is broad and their economics compelling.”
The use of drones on construction sites is attributed to the need to decrease waste and improve financial efficiency. The American Institute of Architects says that 25-40% of the US solid-waste stream consists of building-related waste. Drones could prove a solution by enabling more intimate monitoring of sites through high-definition cameras and sensors.
“The biggest advantage will be cost saving,” says Colin Mann, director of the infrastructure team for PwC in the UK. “The data the drones are generating via photogrammetry and advanced analytics relates to location, presence and condition of local assets. That’s information that can be gathered in other ways, but it either requires you to spend a lot of money on human resources or helicopters and other manned aircraft. Construction companies don’t have access to manned aviation. Drones are a more realistic proposition. They respond quickly to a need.
“There’s a safety benefit. You’re able to put drones in areas where you don’t want to put human beings, such as a closer inspection of rail lines that might be operational. There’s an accuracy advantage – photogrammetry versus having a naked eye inspection.”
Tracking by drone allows for constant data accumulation, and sensors can even allow for 3D structural models to be made for monitoring and measurement. Such data could potentially minimise errors, allow for efficient distribution of resources, and save time and money.
According to PwC, in one construction project it was supervising the investor had saved £2.36 million in claims settlement litigation owing to unparalleled evidence provided through drone technology.
Drones could also aid in detection and prevention of trespassing, as well as the placement of trench protection that could improve the safety of construction sites. PwC calculated that the number of life-threatening accidents on an average construction site monitored by drones could be decreased by up to 91%.
Cyberhawk, a company specialising in aerial surveys with drones, uses its technology to inspect windfarms in the UK and Europe. The company uses its own cloud-based asset management software called iHawk to give its clients the ability to view the condition of their assets. This provides high-definition visual evidence of the complete turbine blade and accurately sized, positioned and analysed defects.
The drones used for the inspection of the blades have eight independent rotors, and can operate in 25-knot wind speeds. The drone is navigated by a trained pilot who ensures it is in the correct position, while the camera is controlled by a blade inspection engineer who monitors a live video stream. Four or more turbines are inspected in a day, with all the collated data sent to the inspection centre to be analysed. According to Cyberhawk, the software has the ability to accurately measure the size of defects to ±5mm and to indicate their positions on the blade.
Phil Buchan, commercial director of Cyberhawk, says that drones offer several advantages for windfarm inspection. “Because a drone inspection is typically more than four times faster than using traditional methods, this not only means that schedules are improved but, even more importantly, downtime is reduced.
“The cost savings on offer are also significant. This is not only through maximising turbine uptime, but also when compared to using rope access or elevated platforms. The lowest-cost alternative would be to conduct a ground-based inspection but the quality of data is nowhere near the level of intricate detail that can be captured by a drone.
“And safety risks are minimised as technicians do not need to work at height. Technicians need only climb turbines if the drone inspection has deemed that maintenance work is required.”
Another sector that is now venturing to use drone inspection is the energy industry. The Energy Innovation Centre (EIC) says that gas and electricity network operators are exploring this as an alternative to traditional methods. For example, high-pressure pipelines are often inspected by helicopters, but using drones could be a safer and lower-cost solution.
“Currently, all drone inspections must be conducted within visual line of sight (VLOS),” says the EIC. In the UK this means the drone must be no more than 427m vertically and 500m horizontally away from the human pilot and must maintain a safe distance from people, buildings and vehicles.
“The EIC’s network partners have used drones to support surveying grid sites, difficult-to-reach assets and checking for damage following storms. The drones use photography and thermal imaging to report inspection findings. The images are then reviewed manually either on-site or taken away to be processed.”
Despite the many benefits drone inspection provides, the technology still shows room for refinement. Drones being required to operate within the VLOS means that there are certain limitations. The EIC, along with the Department for Transport, Civil Aviation Authority and the Transport Catapult, are looking into developing the ability for drones to fly beyond the visual line of sight to take drone inspection further.
Mann of PwC concurs with claims that drones pose certain limitations for inspection purposes. “If the inspection requires an internal view, such as a power station build, it’s going to be difficult to achieve that with a drone.
“People are using drones during construction rather than the operation of an asset. There is a danger in relying on it completely for progress monitoring in construction.”
Cyberhawk would like to see the development of a solution that sees drones carry out maintenance to wind-turbine blades.
Many believe that drone inspection will see further growth. “I think it’s going to expand, as the cost base comes down and technology continues to increase, such as artificial intelligence,” says Mann. “There will be a drive to use the drones for more practical purposes alongside ground-based robotics, as well inspection. It’ll start coming into the construction element rather than just surveying of a project.”
One sector that this technology will soon be more ubiquitous in is transport. Network Rail has expressed the desire to use drones for its Orbis project, to visualise the network and analyse maintenance and field worker distribution. The budget airline EasyJet recently tested drones at Luton airport for conducting safety inspections on its aircraft.
Devon and Cornwall Police are using drones fitted with cameras to monitor traffic accidents, capture crime-scene photos and search for missing people, services usually provided by a manned helicopter.