Energy industry sectors like solar, wind, oil and gas, rely on inspections to maintain safety standards to effectively power the world, but those inspections can take large amounts of time and money to carry out. With drones flying overhead utility sites, damage on everything from wind turbines to solar panels can quickly be identified, preventing potential problems before they grow. With information collected by a drone, abnormalities and damage can be quickly pinpointed, progress can be monitored, and everything from orthomosaics, to elevation data, and 3D maps can be created.
According to Andrew Deakin, president of Hawkeye Drone Services, a company that specializes in aerial inspections, mapping monitoring, and data collection, infrastrucutre operators are quickly realizing the benefits drones can provide. “As people get more educated on the technology of drones they are starting to realize that drones are a much faster and safer method of inspecting,” he said.
Traditionally, operations such as gas facilities, solar farms, and remote oil fields were inspected by planes, helicopters and professional climbers. “When it came to inspections it used to be that consultants would take up large amounts of time to create a safety document and then send specialized personel out to look at a bridge, windmill, or turbine," said Deakin. "With a drone these safety risks are virtually eliminated."
A drones ability to inspect areas that are hard to reach, as well as save on expenses and insurance can help companies better manage their properties and gather more accurate information than ever before at the push of a button. “With reduced inspection times, operators can focus more on the information at hand and get a better picture of their operations. They don’t need to spend a bunch of money, time, and days looking at something that can be done in a couple of hours with a drone."
When it comes to drone inspections in the wind energy sector, the market is driven by the large amount of blades that need to be regularly monitored for deterioration and damage. According to a report by Navigant Research, by the beginning of last year there were nearly 270,000 individual wind turbines operating around the world.
Deakin says he expects the demand of drones for wind turbine inspections to increase significantly in the future. “Industrial climbers can’t safely get out to the blades to look at them, and when it comes to blade inspections, industrial climbers put themselves in very dangerous working conditions,"said Deakin. “Depending on what the drone is equipped with, you can get a really detailed 1 mm per pixel quality image to record assets and pinpoint damage. That is a huge safety factor because workers don't have to be sent out to dangerous places and operators can receive data quickly and efficiently."
A drone in the air above a wind turbine site can gather information and images to be used for monitoring, mapping, planning, and structural analysis. With a thermal camera attached to a drone visual inspections can be carried out to detect conductor hot spots or broken insulators. Corona discharge, fluid being ionized around an electrically charged conductor, can also be spotted with a UV camera, to indicate broken hardware such as insulators or conductors. As well, a drone can be used to map out and create 3D images so that engineers and operators can get a more detailed view of damage such as cracks or erosion without having to stop turbines from spinning.
The life span of solar panels depend on regular and efficient maintenance, and because solar farms run over expansive areas of land, inspections can take large amounts of time and money. With a drone survey, inspections costs can be cut in half so companies can increase their efficiencies and better stay on top of operation maintenance.
Traditionally, when it came to solar inspections, operators would rely on long and tedious on-foot surveys in which inspectors would walk through farms carrying handheld infrared cameras. "With a solar inspection people would have to inspect and record information on the ground which can take lots of time and money, A drone speeds up that process at half the cost," said Deakin.
Another traditional method would have operators use manned aerial flights at low levels to survey solar farms with a thermal camera. Not only would this method take a lot of time and money, it would place employees in unsafe conditions. "Today, solar farm, operators can have drone technology quickly and easily take picture and video footage of installations and analyze up-to-date timelines of farms as they are maintained, without putting anyone in a risky situation," said Deakin.
Solar panels can easily be damaged, and their efficiency hindered, due to effects of weather, moisture intrusion or dust. With programmed waypoints, drone surveys can be performed and replicated to pinpoint damage and provide operators with up-to-date imagery of damage, cracks, or shading. Not only can a drone detect damage on a solar panel, it can also monitor the panels efficiency as well. "The best way to utilize a drone for inspecting solar panels is to attach a thermal camera for hot spot detection," said Deakin. With an infrared camera, defects and temperature imbalances on solar panels can be easily identified to allow operators to quickly order repairs, and keep operations running at maximum efficiency. In contrast to traditional inspections methods, drone surveys are a fast and economical way to stay on top of maintenance, and keep solar farms running at optimal efficiency.
The oil and gas industry relies heavily on inspecting its infrastructure to meet strict government standards. With all of the advantages drones can provide the industry, these mini flying machines could soon be seen on almost every oil rig and pipeline site around the world.
The industry is already taking advantage of the technology as they currently use drones to detect damage, corrosion, and any other potential maintenance problems on their properties. A drone can collect footage to create a georeferenced orthomosaic of entire gas plant sites, produce up-to-date timelines and high resolution maps, and do it all in just a few hours while keeping operations running and keeping costs down. “Drones can be used in a number of ways for surveying when it comes to the oil and gas industry,” said Deakin. “A drone can be flown to monitor installations, track resources, assess safety requirements, and coordinate activities of a job site, as the project continues giving operators an up-to-date timeline.”
Drone usage in the oil and gas sector is especially advantageous due to the added safety factor of not having to send employees into dangerous locations typically associated with the oil and gas sector. Previous to drones, inspecting hard to reach areas would pose extreme risk and difficulty to employees. "A climber used to have to physically climb inside of a holding tank. Now a drone services operator can go in with a drone, create maps, take pictures, and even create a 3D model," said Deakin. By flying a drone, oil and gas operators can easily attain images of flare stack heads to identify structural damage and abnormalities without having to send an industrial climber into risky situations.
Pipelines are another operation that must be constantly monitored to search for potential leaks. A drone flying overhead pipelines can save on expenses and cut inspection times in half. And with a thermal camera, temperature differences between soil and fluid can be detected so oil and gas leaks can be identified. Deakin advised, “With thermal images you can even use the data to detect tank levels of oil or any leaks." With the use of a drone and specialized software, oil and gas operators can have 3D maps and surveys done to compare where a pipeline is going versus where the engineers originally planned it.
Drones are also poised to improve inspections on power lines at less cost and less risk. A survey with a drone can easily pinpoint storm damage or overgrown vegetation to restore power as quickly as possible. "A drone can fly out to survey effortlessly, and then a power company can look at that footage and see what sections need to be cleared of trees ," said Deakin.
Previous to drone technology, helicopters or industrial climbers would have to perform inspections on power lines. Not only would this pose a risk to employees, it was also a much slower and costly process. Industrial climbers would have to climb posts to access power lines, and helicopters would be extremely expensive and intrusive. In contrast to manned aerial vehicles or placing people in dangerous situations, drones are a much safer, quieter, and environmentally friendly alternative.
With high quality imagery, operators can assess the condition of power lines, to prevent damage and potential outages from occurring. A drone performing routine and regular inspections with pre-programmed waypoints can also provide high quality imagery from optimal perspectives, and give operators a detailed analysis of any malfunctions.
Laws and regulations relating to the usage of drones will play a key role in the advancement of drone technology, especially when it comes to performing industry inspections. Currently, laws in some European countries allow drones to go beyond the line of site, and other countries like Canada currently have more open policies when it comes to their own drone regulations. With more safety improvements, strict regulations on where drones are able to fly will ease up, but in order for drones to truly take-off, regulations will need to catch up.
When it comes to the future of drone technology, automation is going to be a key advancement in the years to come. Drones can already take-off, fly, and land with pre-programmed waypoints, but they could soon also recharge themselves by automatically landing on a charging pad.
With all of the benefits drones can provide, it is in the utilities sector where we could see the most growth in the adoption of drone technology, and Deakin hopes that industries across the board continue to move toward the technology in the future. "My hope is that industries realize that drones are cost-effective, faster than standard practices, and much safer," he said. As clean energy continues to increase, innovative drone technologies will help to improve onsite efficiency, extend equipment lifetimes, and prevent damage before it grows, all from a single flying machine in the air.