Industries that are taking advantage of drone technology all have one thing in common; assets and operations that can take large amounts of time and money to inspect. With aerial drone inspections, developers and researchers can now better analyze and understand the job sites they are operating on. From collecting precise data, to observing up-to-date timelines of their assets.
In a report released last year by Business Insider Intelligence, business opportunities for drones will mainly focus on industries such as energy, agriculture, construction, mining, utilities, real estate, and media. The report forecasts that drones could also likely replace $127 million worth of existing business services and labour, with sales expected to grow to $12 billion by 2021.
Thanks to drone technology, companies are now transforming the way they conduct their inspections. With high quality 4K cameras, obstacle avoidance technology, and customizable programming capabilities, operators can now safely navigate their drone through unsafe or previously inaccessible environments, collect precise data, and create 3D maps and orthomosaics to analyze and improve the efficiency of their operations.
Whether it is a building or a technical installation, construction sites must abide to strict safety regulations and inspections can be very costly. When it comes to work on construction sites, drone technology can help operators inspect everything from roads, to bridges and dams, while keeping workers safe from potentially dangerous environments and situations. A drone can help management create 3D maps, orthomosaics, collect elevation data, and gather volumetric measurements to map out, build, and develop key projects.
According to Trevor Bergmann, general manager of AeroVision Canada, a Halifax-based company that specializes in commercial asset inspection, using a drone on inspection sites can greatly improve safety for workers. "It's about the health and safety advantage," he said. "It's really important that operators get as much detail as they can, especially for the management who want a comprehensive analysis of what the job site looks like, without putting anyone in harm's way."
An advantage of using a drone, especially when it comes to construction, is the ability to build 3D maps to view an exact timeline of a job site from beginning to end. Clients can pass the timeline to management to give them an exact observation of how a job site is progressing. This advantage can prove to be invaluable, as it can make logistics planning easier, and save on time and expenditures, said Bergmann. "The management team can have access to a constantly rotating baseline of exactly how the build is going, which makes planning a lot easier. The developers can configuration manage their operation to see exactly where they started and where they have to go."
The agriculture industry is one sector that is already being completely revolutionized by drone technology. A drone cruising over a large plot of land can collect data and high quality imagery to help farmers better analyze and monitor moister levels, soil quality, potential disease and general crop health. With this information, farmers can maximize their productivity as well as better analyze crops or livestock to find potential problems before they grow.
The agriculture sector is currently experiencing a massive push towards using drone technology, the biggest being toward crop monitoring. "There is definitely a growing need for drone technology in agriculture," said Bergmann. "More specifically, farmers are looking for information that can help them observe irrigation problems, plant health, and pests."
Whereas traditional inspections on fields were done through satellite imagery, helicopters, or farmers simply walking through their fields, a drone can enable farmers to have a quick and cheap tool at their disposal to monitor crops and livestock. With multispectral cameras, and infrared technology, farmers can observe and identify healthy and unhealthy plants unseen to the naked eye by analyzing wavelengths and chlorophyll levels. Drones can even be used for crop spraying large sections of land quickly and efficiently.
Largely, drones are an extremely economical technology for farmers. With drone inspection, farmers can customize exactly what types of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer to use based on data collected from their drone, therefore saving time and avoiding over or under use of resources. The information collected by a drone can help reduce fertilizer use, increase crop yields, dispense water and pesticides, and detect problems before they develop.
Whether it be for search and rescue purposes, environmental reasons, or to improve energy efficiency, any drone can be equipped with a thermal camera to detect things invisible to the naked eye. A thermal camera can be used for applications such as electrical and solar panel inspection, mapping, and infrastructure assessment.
A wide variety of industries can take advantage of thermal technology from law enforcement to agriculture, as they can assess wide ranges of land and easily identify hot spots. Firefighters can use thermal cameras to better analyze wildfires and quickly identify victims in the environment. In agriculture, thermal cameras can also evaluate ripeness of fruits, estimate plant yields, detect disease or pests on plants, as well as monitor irrigation levels. In real estate and construction, thermal cameras can even assess insulation, compromised roofing, perform energy audits, and inspect air leakage. Information collected via thermal imagery can also detect abnormal or excessive current flows in electrical power lines.
Early detection of problems and preventative maintenance is an area that thermal technology excels in. Attaching a thermal camera to a drone can help developers detect and document problems before they start. By using a thermal camera, operators can detect heat leakages, water intrusion, prevent energy lost, or detect failed components on an asset.
Health and safety is a top priority in the mining industry, and drones are making mining sites safer than ever before for employees. Pilots can attain data without exposing workers to dangerous environments and save on expenses at the same time. Operators can use a drone to monitor extractions, assess volumetric calculations, measure break lines, create contour line models, and 3D maps.
The health and safety advantage is really important to those in the mining industry, according to Bergmann. "It's important that management gets as much data and detail as they can," he said. "They want a comprehensive analysis of what the job site looks like so they can notify crews beforehand about what areas they should stay cautious of so that no one is put in harm's way."
Another large advantage of drone use in mining is the exploration, surveying, mapping, and documentation of large areas of land in remote locations. A drone can be used to create an elevation model and orthomosaic, so clients can observe detailed imagery of potential or already existing mining sites. By creating 3D models, operators can also assess visual maps and timelines to analyze job sites from the start of the project to its present condition. Time efficiency is another key benefit of drone usage. In a day's work a drone can potentially fly over 10 kilometers of land to quickly send management data and results that can make planning easier and more efficient.
Whether it is wind, solar, oil and gas, or electric, energy companies are greatly benefiting from the ease of use and time efficiency drone technology provides. Though all of the sectors have different needs for inspections, inspections are key, and can cost energy companies upwards of millions of dollars.
Typically, wind turbine engineers and technicians have to view turbines from the ground up. The maintenance and inspection costs can be very expensive, time consuming, and even place employees in dangerous situations. "Wind turbine blades can cost up to millions of dollars if you look at the costs associated with getting a new blade installed or a warranty claim. It can get costly really quick," said Bergmann. "During inspections on wind turbines, certain programs on a drone can identify cracking at a micron level. As far as maintenance and planning, the information collected by a drone can be invaluable."
In the solar energy sector, a drone can identify defects in solar panels, as well as identify which panel could fail in the future. A drone can quickly and easily capture imagery and information over thousands of panels to save companies large amounts of time, effort, and money. By using an infrared camera an operator can monitor heat distribution, which panels are working at 100% efficiency and which ones aren't, and detect any solar cell cracks.
Inspections in the oil and gas sector can also be dangerous, time consuming, and costly. A drone can collect detailed information quickly and safely while also allowing companies to conduct inspections more frequently. Oil and gas companies can use drones equipped with thermal cameras to detect gas leaks, inspect pipelines, and monitor gas production. A drone can also create timelines of job sites so companies can conduct predictive maintenance to save money down the road.
Future of Drone Technology for Inspections
The future of drone use for inspections is pointed towards more automation, especially in the agricultural sector, according to Bergmann. "You're not going to see pilots out there trying to fly two square kilometers of crop and then jump over and do two more. I think within five to ten years you're going to see fully automated systems that can take-off, fly a plot, come back, land, recharge, take-off, and then do it all over again constantly and consistently."
Europe is currently leading the way for drone usage. Their regulations, particularly in the UK, are setting the world standard as they continue to keep up with the growing technology. Though Canada's own regulations fair well compared to other countries, globally, regulations for drone usage still need to catch up, particularly in the United States. Bergmann said he expects to see massive regulation amendments in Canada as early as this year, including pilot training requirements and the registration of drones.
As drones are constantly evolving and being used in various fields, interest in the technology is booming as companies take note of the potential for resource, risk, and cost savings on their job sites. Drones can enable industries to acquire data and insight never before accessible in a reliable and efficient way. Not only are they time efficient and cost effective, drones are much more environmentally friendly in contrast to helicopters. As drone usage for inspections becomes more mainstream and technology continues to develop, industries are increasingly recognizing the technological renaissance taking place in the skies.