8 Frontiers Where Drones Are Rapidly Changing Heavy Industry

As our new Chief Drone Office Andrew Maximow pointed out, the advent of two-click autonomous flight for drones “was really the watershed moment” that brought drones out of the hobbyist realm and into big industry.

Only a few years in, we are seeing some truly revolutionary applications of drone technology in industries such as facilities management, and oil and gas — not to mention construction, mining and solid waste.

Here are eight broad areas that are reaping the benefits of this business transformation today.


Securing Oil and Gas Pipelines

Drones are particularly welcome in industries such as oil and gas, where hundreds of miles of pipelines demand regular inspection to prevent leakages (or worse).

This has long been an expensive task. “Before drones, inspecting miles of pipelines was done by helicopter, truck, and on-foot for remote areas,” the team at EnergyHQ writes. “And while some inspections still require up-close review from an expert, drones are equipped with new tech to detect and deter potential leaks or methane emissions. Plus, instead of sending out a crew to inspect a remote location, drone surveys are also safer.”

That was an important point for Gail India, a state-owned gas transporter in India. In 2014, there was an accident at one of Gail’s pipelines in Andhra Pradesh that killed 18 people, and the company faced intense pressure to shore the safety of its pipelines.

In April of 2016, it began testing out drone surveillance on a pilot basis on a 200-kilometer stretch of pipeline in the north of the country.

And back in the States, the booming fracking industry has its hands full with its own safety concerns. In response, Physical Sciences, Inc. has been developing a drone specifically for this industry to examine pipelines and identify whether gas pipelines are leaking methane.


Thermal Imaging to Spot Problems in Built Environments

With UAVs that can conceivably surveil every square inch of a building’s interior or exterior, you have the ability to get real visibility into where you think warm air is leaking (and driving up energy costs, much to the chagrin of facilities managers and building owners everywhere).

In October, Facilities Management Journal discussed how UK-based FM services provider Mitie had begun to incorporate drones into its thermal imaging toolbox. The applications could be crucial to facilities and worksite managers, who would be able to use Mitie’s Inspire 1 drones to

  • perform building inspections,
  • look for potentially flammable spots in landfills,
  • and even spot bird nests in sensitive places.

The Inspire 1 can also help create thermal maps of a facility so it’s easy to spot any areas that require additional insulation.


Mapping Sites and Tracts of Land

The team at Kespry has been making huge advances with two-click autonomous flying, to the point that deploying one of its drones requires almost no effort.

Wayne Grayson has a piece on Kespry’s Drones 2.0 at Equipment World that demonstrates how easy it is to use one of these devices for mapping even sizable areas:

“After opening up the package, you call Kespry and speak to a customer service representative for about an hour as part of the initial setup process,” he writes. “When you’re ready to start mapping, you open the Kespry iPad app, draw an outline around the site you want mapped on the screen, drag a slider to the height you want the imagery taken from and launch the drone.

“That’s it. From there, the drone takes off, maps the site and lands in the exact spot it took off from. During flight, an on-board LiDAR sensor automatically detects and avoids obstacles like trees, cranes, and buildings.”

Afterward, the drone returns, connects to WiFi and uploads the images for you. Kespry has software, then, that will render a 3D model for you.

The speed of innovation, however, might be a little unwieldy for area managers and site managers (and surveyors themselves), who have enough on their plates to keep up with drone technology that takes a great leap forward every six months or so.

“It’s very possible many surveyors would rather hire a service provider to collect data than invest in a tool that can be obsolete is as little as six months,” writes Colin Snow, CEO and co-founder of Skylogic Research. “They may also consider short-term leases to ensure their technology is relatively current or just rent a drone when needed.

“Regardless of how small drones fit into the workflow, they will not only affect the industry, but they will also create new opportunities for independent contractors who, based on their experience, may be able to fly and collect data less expensively than surveyors.”


Improving Visibility and Communications Along Rail Lines

Interestingly, there is a killer app possibility in the world of railroads, both with freight and with commuter trains.

For one thing, train companies have the same problems as oil and gas companies: Miles of infrastructure that need constant monitoring. BNSF Railway moved quickly to employ drones in that kind of work. As journalist Thomas Black reports, the railroad company began flying its drones 150 miles in the sky to both monitor its tracks and to help the FAA understand regulatory challenges of letting drone operators fly the craft outside of their lines of sight.

But even passengers on the trains are finding drones helpful. As the team at Railway Innovation points out, some companies (and even the UK government) are testing how useful it would be to have drones follow along behind a train to boost in-car WiFi connectivity.

“Passengers are often frustrated by intermittent phone and WiFi access on the train,” the piece notes. “This is a real issue for customer satisfaction in the railway industry. The problem of tunnels and long stretches of rail through remote regions make internet connectivity a serious challenge.”


Securing and Surveilling Worksites

Then, of course, there is security itself, which can be a huge challenge at worksites and in built environments. A few startups have begun building drones to help solve those problems.

One such company is Aptonomy. It builds drones that essentially function as security guards to ward off intruders — and to keep human security professionals out of harm’s way, potentially.

MIT Technology Review’s Tom Simonite explores how this would work: “When on duty, an Aptonomy drone will be programmed to patrol a set area automatically, and use its onboard cameras to spot and approach any person entering who shouldn’t be. The drone would flash its warning lights, light the person with its spotlight and deliver a canned warning to retreat. A security guard in a control center would be notified, and the guard could take control of the drone and speak through it.”

Another drone-based security company, Pixiel Security, earned an award at the Expoprotection trade show in 2016 for its NeoSafe drone solution, which sends one or more drones out to spot intruders with mounted cameras, then notify site managers via an alarm.


Monitoring and Protecting a Worksite’s Wild Neighbors

Every worksite has neighbors that will be affected by the work being done, and it’s important to protect those neighbors who don’t have a way to speak up for themselves when ground is broken and machines move in.

With drones, it becomes relatively easy to monitor the populations of animals and other wildlife adjacent to a site. Drones are already being used to monitor and inspect all kinds of wildlife populations to gauge their wellbeing.

As Alissa Crane writes at DrDrone.ca, organizations are using drones to identify different animal species, track poachers and even assess the health of the plants in a forest. Deploying this same technology can help companies ensure they aren’t encroaching upon especially delicate environments, and they can measure objectively the health of their wild neighbors before, during and after a project.

Oh, and the B-roll makes for entertaining videos:


Monitoring a Community’s Energy-Delivery Infrastructure

As with railroads and pipelines, the infrastructure that makes a power grid requires continuous monitoring — and the ability to react instantly should something go wrong.

Again, let’s take the story to India, via the Bay Area. As Palo Alto’s Sharper Shape reported in August 2016, it had begun working with Indian power transmission company Sterlite Power to provide automated utility asset inspections.

“India has a power transmission network of more than a million circuit kilometers which is undergoing double-digit growth annually,” Sharper Shape’s team points out. “The use of drones will increase the uptime of the grid, reduce transmission tariffs, avoid grid blackouts, and also save the environment by reducing deforestation along the line corridors.”

Then, there are the power plants themselves. At a coal plant, for example, monitoring the equipment is more self-contained, but on a wind farm, where assets are distributed across a wide area, monitoring all of the machinery is difficult unless you have some reliable drones.

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy featured one Michigan company, SkySpecs, for that company’s ability to pancake the time it takes to monitor wind turbines. “Historically, inspections have been time consuming and expensive,” the DOE’s Michele Capots writes.

“While preventative maintenance has become a standard practice (rather than reactively waiting for problems to arise before fixing them), effective proactive maintenance requires large amounts of data. Today, SkySpecs inspections take less than 15 minutes — and they can conduct as many as 17 inspections in one day. That’s currently faster than any other inspection company in the industry.”


Capturing Time-Lapse Footage of Construction Projects

A lot of people get into the construction business simply because it’s so gratifying to build something. There aren’t many other industries in which you can step back from a finished 10-story building and say, “I helped build that.”

Clayco understands this, and its team had the foresight to film its construction of the Zurich Insurance Group’s North American headquarters:

LIFT Drone Timelapse Video from Clayco on Vimeo

images by: ©cozyta/123RF Stock Photo, Martin Wessely, Jason Blackeye