Drone use for inspection continues to grow

Jon Lawson

Advances in electronics and improvements in power storage has enabled drone technology to be used for more inspection tasks. For example, Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, England has just completed a trial to use a HEROTECH8 ‘drone-in-a-box’ machine to perform inspections at the site’s runway. Rob Abbott, Director of Aviation Operations at Cranfield Airport, explained: “As a fully-functional research airport located on a university campus, this kind of technology demonstration and development exercise is very much in our DNA. Using UAVs to conduct inspections could reduce operational costs and is another example of the work we are doing to explore and harness the potential of unmanned aircraft.”

The long term plan is that drones could be used to inspect other areas such as perimeter fences regularly – for example, in the morning before the Airport opens, and in the evening after closing – to detect damage or the presence of anything which could be dangerous for aircraft.

Right now, UK laws mean that any drone must be within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of the operator, although this is expected to chance at some point. The test flights consisted of a half hour round trip at around 100 feet above the perimeter, with images uploading to the cloud for later review. The idea is to automate the process and include extra sensors or even thermal imaging cameras to offer greater detail. 

Another piece of infrastructure which lends itself well to rapid drone inspection is the rail network. Ardenna has launched new cloud-based software called Rail-Inspector which analyses survey data like rail gauge and gaps, tie spacing, tie angle, ballast and switch condition. “Every business is looking for ways to obtain more insight into the health of their assets without impacting worker safety or operational efficiencies. Imagery from drone surveys satisfy those requirements,” said David M. Patterson, Business Development Director for the company. “Rail-Inspector takes those images, whether 10 or 10,000, and generates a comprehensive dataset, representing details associated with the track's current health that would be impractical to obtain using other methods. By watching these track details evolve over time, trends can be identified, enabling maintenance to be scheduled and performed proactively before human or rail safety is impacted.”

Several different drone platforms have been used, and the technology may be incorporated into a railcar at some point. 

It’s not just commercial infrastructure that drones are studying. Vineyard Wind and Greentown Labs are planning to survey marine life off the Massachusetts coast and have just announced which companies will be joining them. Local firm SICdrone will build the drone platforms, with Night Vision Technology Solutions from Rhode Island providing the sensor technology. Open Ocean Robotics, based in British Columbia will provide solar-powered, self-driving boats that travel the seas for months at a time while collecting ocean data. 

The team hopes information learned can ensure responsible development of wind farms everywhere.

• Read what drones are doing in the mining industry here

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