Rise of the drones17 October 2018

Recent research by PwC estimates that there will be more than 76,000 drones in use across the UK skies by 2030. What role can this technology play in industrial maintenance? Adam Offord investigates

Drones, more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASes), have grown in popularity in recent years, given their ability to travel high and wide and take images once thought unimaginable. However, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation and robotics on the minds of many industrial sectors, the potential of these unmanned aircrafts seems endless.

Research released by PwC in May (https://is.gd/qujuma) claims that drone technology has the potential to increase UK GDP by £42 billion (or 2%) by 2030. The research also estimates there will be more than 76,000 drones in use across UK skies and an estimated 628,000 people working in the drone economy by 2030, including operators and regulators. Can this technology therefore be utilised in industrial maintenance?

Suitable facilities

Mining, gas, electricity, construction, manufacturing, defence and transport, among others, are all sectors that could experience a GDP uplift by drones, the PwC research estimates.

“The rise in GDP and job creation from drone uptake are expected to be substantial, but productivity is likely to see the greatest gains,” says Jonathan Gillham, economics director at PwC. “By automating routine tasks, improving effectiveness, safety, and reducing costs, drones will free up people to focus on higher-value work.”

Philip Buchan, commercial director of Cyberhawk Innovations, echoes these words. His employer is an engineering company with more than 60 staff in the UK and US that uses UAVs for aerial inspection and surveying. The firm – one of several in the UK to carry out inspection work with UAVs – has been using drones for the past decade in industrial environments including oil, gas and chemical, power generation, electricity transmission and distribution, and infrastructure.

“We are using drones in these different industrial environments, so, for example, if we are working in offshore oil and gas, then we’ll be looking at anything that is high, alive or difficult to access,” he explains. “This might be the underdeck of an oil platform or splash zones [the area between the water and air].

“We once did an inspection project and previously it had taken a six-man team something like 12 weeks, but we managed to do the work scope with a drone in three days. It cuts down time significantly, and then of course there are cost implications, because when people are working on ropes above the water you typically need to have a supply vessel on standby in case of any problems.

“You also aren’t restricted [in terms of imagery] – a drone can get some good overview shots and then it can zoom in on specific areas for close up shots, so you can get the context of any areas of damage.”

Onshore examples where areas are difficult to access, he adds, may include exhaust stacks, vent stacks, chimney stacks, cooling towers, elevated pipe racks, turbine blades, overhead powerlines and bridges. Meanwhile, problems looked for might include checking the integrity of cladding, finding leaks or cracks, identifying signs of rust and corrosion, and locating dropped objects and much more.

Chris Claydon, chief executive of the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB), agrees that drones can save money, time and improve safety.

He says: “Drones are becoming increasingly common across engineering construction sites in a range of applications, from monitoring and surveying sites, to checking wear and tear on installations, such as offshore platforms and wind turbines.

“They reduce the need for people to carry out hazardous inspections and make these essential processes quicker and cheaper.”

Drone specifications

Currently, drone operators must hold Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) permission for commercial operations (PfCO) in order to perform commercial operations, but these are not specific to industry.

CAA guidance on commercial operations with small drones (defined as having a mass of not more than 20kg) can be found online (https://is.gd/umeluq)

The CAA says that permission is required if someone wishes to conduct a commercial operation with an aircraft or fly an aircraft within 150m of either a congested area or an organised open-air crowd or more than 1,000 persons and/or within 50m of people or properties/objects that are not under your control.

It adds that larger drones (operating mass of more than 20kg) are subject to UK aviation regulations, although they may be exempted from certain requirements by the CAA.

European regulation is also looking to introduce a drone-specific CE marking in 2018/2019. According to the European Aviation Safety Agency, the proposal would break new grounds by combining product legislation and aviation legislation (https://is.gd/sakima).

Cyberhawk, meanwhile, uses different drones depending on whether an inspection is taking place externally or internally. For external use, the company uses drones that are typically about 2kg in weight and around one metre in size, with eight independent rotors.

“We want the drone to be as light as possible for in the unlikely case that if it comes down,” says Buchan. “The eight rotors also mean that it can lose one to three rotors and still be controlled and landed safely. This is different to a typical cross shaped drone with four rotors because if a rotor breaks then it will crash.”

When it comes to internal inspection work, different drones are used. “We use a drone within a cage (images, right), which weighs about 500g and is about 400mm.

The cage is for protective reasons because it is normally in a tight space, so you can hit things and it won’t crash. It also has a camera with a light source, so you can still get images.”

The minimum standoff distance that CyberHawk can achieve also “depends on the skill of the pilot”, but at most, this would usually be around five metres. Different cameras specs are used based on scope of work, weather conditions, available light, and the type of drone being used, although the firm has the capability to capture up to 42.4 megapixels (or an image having 6,500 pixels per side).

Buchan adds that height limitations are dictated by relevant country legislation, and in the UK, the limit is 400ft. However, Cyberhawk has an exemption to 600ft and can also submit a safety case for higher if required.

How does it work?

Buchan says that at Cyberhawk there are three components to a good industrial environment inspection. You need the right equipment, a skilled drone pilot – who has the experience of operating in an industrial setting – and an engineer.

“We always use a two-man team on site,” he explains. “The pilot controls the drone and makes sure it is in the air properly. It will feed down to the engineer, who looks at what the drone is looking at. He also controls the camera – to zoom in and out and take photographs. Just sending the pilot in won’t work as they need to know what they are looking at, and an engineer would notice a deficit.”

When it comes to flying time, Buchan says that it all depends on the environment and what you are trying to achieve. However, a flight time of 10-15 minutes for inspection can be good. “That time slot is good because the pilot has to concentrate, so if you fly near high-voltage power lines then the pilot will be safe, have a set flight plan and can land the drone, refresh the battery, and go back. A short, sharp time works with the detailed inspections.”

Training and qualifications

We’ve already established that drone operators must hold CAA permission for commercial operations (PfCO) to perform commercial operations, but other developments are also taking place.

ECITB was approached by industry in late 2016, and set up a development group to create a standard for industrial drone operators. The ECITB model, which was developed with industry for industry, was completed in June. The whole model is being formally launched in Q3 2018 and seeks to build upon, but not replicate the CAA scheme.

The model is built around four distinct stages that serve to ensure operators attain and develop the skills they need to safely operate in heavy industrial environments.

Stage 1: Off-the-job training at an ECITB-approved centre is delivered against the outcomes in the industry-informed ECITB Industrial Drone Operations Training Standard. Training takes a blended approach, consisting of a ground school phase, followed by practical flight training for rotary and fixed wing platforms up to 20kg.

Stage 2: Work-based consolidation in an industrial environment further develops the skills and knowledge attained from the training course. It also builds up their experience – an operator who has completed the stage one training performs a set of industry-related tasks in a given period of time before going for stage three. Stage two allows learners to consolidate their learning and develop their experience before formal assessment. Stage two must be completed from three to 12 months after the initial stage one training, and each delegate must complete a minimum of 30 flying hours in an industrial environment, which must be recorded in their pilot’s log book.

Stage 3: Formal technical testing at an ECITB centre using the ECITB Technical Testing platform, which has delivered thousands of industry tests globally. The test takes the form of a practically-assessed task consisting of: completing the pre-flight actions for a complex industrial drone operation; performing a series of specified flight manoeuvres to set parameters; and responding to specified emergency scenarios.

Stage 4: Renewal of the ECITB technical test certificate through formal re-assessment at an ECITB approved centre.

“There’s no doubt we are on the cusp of a major shift in work practices, with clear practical and financial benefits, that means the use of drones will become the norm across the engineering construction sector,” says Claydon. “This is a trend ECITB has recognised, and it’s why we’ve delivered this rigorous new technical training and assesment programme that is recognised and valued by employers.”

ECITB is currently working with a few organisations to establish a network of training and testing provision in the UK, and the first training course or technical testing is expected to take place in late 2018 and start fully in 2019. As this is emerging technology, the organisation expects to have 50 participants on training courses in the first year, and test 50 experienced UAV pilots as the model is being established in the engineering construction industry, and across other industries.

Cyberhawk, meanwhile, has its own internal pilot training system, which is made up of four levels, with pilots needing more training and experience as they progress.

“You can get a drone pilot licence, but that is very basic and it wouldn’t apply to the type of work we do,” says Buchan. “Drones were originally designed for aerial photographs, and what we are doing is quite different in that we are flying close to buildings and we are doing it in these industrial environments with high voltage electricity and different structures – all these things that could interfere with the operation of the drone, which is one of the reasons we are putting a lot of training into our pilots.”

Rising up

It is clear that drones have the potential to offer a range of benefits for businesses across a variety of industries, delivering both productivity benefits and increased value from the data they collect..

As Elaine Whyte, UK drones leader at PwC, concludes: “Drones are often currently viewed as more of a toy, [but] by combining this emerging technology with the right business understanding and human insight there is a huge opportunity to help solve some of business and society’s most important problems.”

BOX OUT: Drones keep Ford workers grounded

Ford employees are now using cameras mounted on drones to safely and efficiently inspect high-rise gantries, pipework and roof areas at the company’s Dagenham Engine Plant in the UK.

Previously, the team carried out this important maintenance work by using extending platforms and scaffolding to check 40-metre-long gantries that support the plant’s heavy machinery.

Each inspection area would take a laborious 12 hours to complete, but now, with feet firmly on the ground and controlling drones equipped with GoPro cameras, maintenance staff can thoroughly inspect each area in just 12 minutes, while the whole production facility can be covered in a day, by zooming in on hard-to-reach areas to ensure they are well-maintained and comply to rigorous safety standards.

“We’d joked about having a robot do the work when there was a lightbulb moment – use drones instead,” says Pat Manning, machining manager at Ford Dagenham Engine Plant.

“Previously we had to scale heights of up to 50 metres to do the necessary checks on the roof and machining areas. Now we can cover the entire plant in one day, and without the risk of team members having to work at dangerous heights.”

With the time saved, the team at Dagenham can

carry out more frequent inspections, without having to shut down facilities to

construct the scaffolding that was once necessary. Ford’s drones are also set

to work inspecting pipework, locating air leaks and checking machinery. The

company is now evaluating the possibility of using this high-flying technology

in other regions.

Adam Offord

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