Over the last several years, inspectors in several industries have started using commercial drones to help them conduct inspections.
Equipped with high-quality cameras, a good inspection drone can often completely take the place of the inspector for collecting visual or thermal data.
Without a drone, an inspector will have to collect visual data themselves, by physically standing in front of whatever it is they need to inspect.
Although commercial drones are typically used to collect visual data, it is important to note that drones are not solely used for visual inspections.
Special sensors can be attached to a drone to collect other data, like thermal data or LiDAR data—for example, HVAC inspectors use thermal data to locate where leaks may be present in a system by looking at where there are large thermal signatures, indicating a hole in the system.
How Inspections Work
An inspector’s job is to make sure that all the parts of a factory, plant or other industrial site are in good working condition.
At an oil refinery, inspectors will visually review the outside of all the assets being used to make sure they’re in good shape. Since it is done outside, this work is called an external inspection.
At the same refinery, inspectors will also have to inspect the inside of all the assets being used there. This could include massive boilers or pressure vessels, which will have to be emptied, cooled, and safety-checked prior to the inspector entering them.
Inspections inside of these large assets are called internal inspections. To do them, inspectors have to crawl, climb, or slide inside the objects they’re inspecting, carrying a flashlight and a camera.
Once inside, the inspector will move methodically through, looking at everything to make sure it’s in good condition. If the asset is large, like an 80-foot tall oil storage tank, for example, then the inspectors will have to build and stand on scaffolding or use ropes to get in position so that they can do their visual inspection.
How Drones Make Inspections Safer and Cheaper
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 2011-2018, 1,030 people died in the U.S. while doing work in confined spaces. People also die every year from working on scaffolding and on ropes.
Drones make inspections safer by reducing or even eliminating the need for an inspector to collect visual data in person, which removes the need for them to enter a confined space, stand on scaffolding, or use ropes to collect visual data.
Commercial drones make this possible by allowing the inspector to fly them to the spot they need to inspect and look at it through the drone’s live feed, basically acting as a proxy for the inspector’s eye.
Inspectors also review the video footage the drone collects after the flight, conducting a thorough inspection by looking at all the details they find there.
But drones don’t just make inspections safer. They also make them a lot cheaper.
One way that drones help companies save money on inspections is by reducing the need for costly scaffolding, which can take a full day or more to build.
Some scaffolding may still need to be used for maintenance work after the inspection is complete—you still need to send a person up to fix things, after all, though we may one day have a drone that can do that work, too.
But drones minimize the amount of scaffolding that will be needed by pinpointing problem areas for the maintenance team, which means that they only need to build scaffolding exactly where it’s needed.
Drones also help companies save money by reducing the amount of time they have to shut down for inspections. The longer an industrial site like an oil refinery or power plant is offline, the more potential revenue it loses.
Because scaffolding takes so long to build, using it for inspections can prolong downtimes—but since drones can reduce the need for scaffolding, they can also thereby reduce downtimes.
In one instance, workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority were able to use Flyability’s Elios 2 indoor drone to reduce the time needed for a huge industrial inspection by 98%, for a total of 470 hours saved—mainly by eliminating the need to build and take down the scaffolding.
Here’s footage captured by the Elios 2 in that inspection:
As discussed above, indoor inspections are primarily conducted in hard-to-reach confined spaces.
Common assets that require indoor inspections include:
- Pressure vessels
- Sewer systems
In many cases, it is imperative that these assets are properly maintained because they could explode or present other safety hazards if left uninspected over time.
Common risks to doing these inspections manually include:
- Presence of hazardous chemicals or other substances
- Insufficient oxygen
- Structural hazards and/or falling debris
- Entanglement, engulfment
- Risk of explosion or fire
As we’ve covered above, deploying a drone in place of an inspector in these scenarios can save lives.
Adoption of drones for indoor inspections is becoming increasingly popular because it is efficient, safe, and cost-effective.
Drones are also faster at collecting data and some drones come equipped with data location software, allowing them to create a 3D model of the asset that pinpoints the location of defects found during the inspection.
Common assets that require external inspections include:
- Flare stacks
- Columns / distillation towers
- Cell towers
- Wind turbines
- Bridge structures / infrastructure
Traditionally, external inspections are conducted by using scaffolding, rope access, aerial work platforms, person-basket crane combos, and even helicopters.
But these methods are all dangerous, time-consuming, and expensive.
It’s important to note that external inspection work with drones requires some kind of certification in most countries. In the U.S., drone pilots need to obtain a Part 107 license before they can fly drones for work, and that includes using drones for inspections.
These regulatory requirements usually don’t extend to internal inspection work with drones.
The important thing is to do your research, and know what the regulations and certifications requirements are in the area where you plan to fly prior to your inspection.
Industries That Use Drones for Inspections
These days almost any industry that does inspections is starting to adopt drones to help do them.
Here’s a list of just some of the industries that use drones for inspections:
- Infrastructure & Utilities
- Power Generation
- Oil & Gas
- Public Safety
- Wastewater / Sewer
Inspectors are finding new ways to use drones in their work every day.
For example, an industrial inspection company based out of Baton Rouge, LA USA used the wash from a drone’s propellers to clear paper dust from rafters at a paper mill so they could collect visual data on the rafters themselves.
Drones are also being used to inspect wind turbine blades for mechanical integrity—a visual inspection that can be automated or flown manually. Traditionally, inspectors would have to use rope access to enter the blades. With the use of drones, the blades can be inspected in as little as 20 minutes, cutting downtime for the turbine significantly and removing the safety hazards usually associated with these kinds of inspections.