Traditionally, it takes trained workers scrunching through tight and potentially hazardous spaces to inspect the ten-story-high boilers that power company Consolidated Edison relies on to provide energy to landmark structures such as the Empire State Building and hundreds more Manhattan edifices. The story has typically been much the same for the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company.
As with many industries, critical inspections aimed at identifying maintenance needs, managing risks, and preventing loss can be difficult and dangerous for personnel to perform, as well as costly and inefficient since they often require equipment to go offline during the exercise. It has been a familiar challenge for any organization operating remote or inaccessible equipment – until the drones arrived.
Drone inspection is a game-changer for industry
Con Ed and the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company are just two of the companies now venturing into a world in which sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are performing essential tasks without putting humans in harm’s way or interrupting operations.
The applications of the technology are as broad as the industrial landscape. Drones are now being placed in service for inspections in everything from remote mining operations to Automated Gas Inspection in chemical plants, utilities, refineries, and manufacturing sites. At the same time, another insurer, State Farm, is testing UAVs for assessing damages to roofs, and has chalked up hundreds of missions to evaluate damage claims.
Where once both routine and emergency inspections could mean a complex and intimidating web of ropes, ladders and rigs adding up to exceptional risk for the inspectors, today’s UAVs, better known as drones, are proving to be the safer, more efficient, and a more economical way.
A new generation of fully automated, operator-free drones has arrived
To a great extent, it is recent innovations in drone technology that have turned the devices into the cutting-edge tools they are now proving to be. Far from the popular view of drones as the province of hobbyists on the one hand or the military on the other, industrial-grade drones have become versatile multi-tools that can perform a wide range of missions automatically and, in the most advanced models, without the need for a human operator.
Drone inspections are one of those missions, along with mapping, security, and other related functions. Flexible, and highly maneuverable drones can easily reach areas that are otherwise difficult to access, collect photographic and/or video images, and transmit the data to technicians in real time, without the need for anyone to risk life or limb.
The emergence of fully automated drones has further enhanced the value of UAVs for drone inspection of industrial machinery and facilities, according to Airobotics, the Israel-based innovator that has led the way globally in the development of fully automated drones. Taking the human element out of the process, the drones are equipped to perform predefined inspection missions from take-off through battery-payload swapping through landing and data processing and transmission.
The net result is a safe and logistically simplified aerial inspection that can provide on-demand data in even the most challenging environments.
Drone inspections both maximize efficiency and minimize risk
The dramatic safety improvements that automated drones provide in industrial settings are persuasive enough, but the benefits don’t stop there. Additionally, automated drones are both significantly more cost effective, they are always ready to deploy with the touch of a button, and they obviate the need for trained operators to be on duty, as well as better able to provide precise, close-up monitoring and control of even the most difficult areas.
Conversely, they can enable a company to inspect vast expanses as well, as an HSB executive pointed out. In one application in that insurance company’s portfolio of risk assessment projects, drones were deployed to conduct precision inspections of each of thousands of panels on a large solar power farm, saving significant amounts of both time and money.
At the same time, state-of-the-art software and imaging equipment can represent a substantial increase in the quality of inspections, when contrasted with all-too-fallible human inspectors. Unlike mere mortals, the drones are not prone to tire or miss minute details that can reveal potential maintenance issues.
Are automated drones the next big thing in inspections?
Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine a future in which the most sophisticated operator-free drones don’t have a central role to play in any number of operations at industrial sites worldwide. And, inescapably, it appears that drone inspections will be one of those critical roles.
After all, they can go where humans can’t, at least not as quickly and safely, and they can collect and transmit critically important data at any time – making them, more and more, a go-to inspection solution for everyone from insurance adjusters to chemical plant operators to Con Ed engineers, just for starters. Just think about shutting down those ten-story boilers so inspectors can scale and examine them. Or think about taking the alternative route and letting an autonomous drone take on the job.