Drones Swoop in as the New Industrial Inspection Tool

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With agile maneuverability, ruggedized drones use cameras and IoT sensors to inspect industrial areas where humans can’t venture and can identify everything from leaks and dents to infrastructure and integrity problems.

From bridges to oil rigs to airplanes, inspecting high-in-the-sky or deep-in-the-water machinery and structures is a costly and dangerous task for energy and transportation corporations. IoT makes that inspection quite a bit easier onshore and offshore via the new generation of commercial, industrial drones. The latest models of commercial, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are equipped with multirotor flight gear, crash-resistant frames for tight spaces and sophisticated imaging, mapping and surveying technology for data gathering.

The increased need for industrial drones is fueling the already hot flying-machine market. Sales are skyrocketing, as the global UAV drones market is expected to increase to $21.23 billion by 2022, according to forecasts from Markets and Markets.

Eye in the Sky at Airbus

An early adopter of inspection drones is aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which has enlisted a test fleet of drones to inspect its airplanes. Its drones record full-body aircraft images and look for scratches, dents and damage. Airbus uses the images to construct a 3-D digital model of the plane that the company can use to help prevent additional airplane damage.


Airbus drone

Photo: Intel newsroom

“The use of this new technology offers better working conditions including improving the safety and comfort for the quality inspectors,” Airbus head of quality Nathalie Ducombeau said in a Fortune interview. She noted that using the drone instead of a human inspector cuts down inspection time from two hours to 10 to 15 minutes. Airbus is using the drones to inspect its A350 aircraft and will expand drone usage to its A330 aircraft this year, eventually using drones to inspect its entire family of airplanes.

Drone technology developer and manufacturer Ascending Technologies, an Intel company, built the AscTec Falcon 8 drone that Airbus uses. The drone is outfitted with Intel® RealSense™ 3D camera technology that enables drones to navigate surroundings and avoid obstacles.

Fly-by Inspections

Another company focused entirely on industrial inspection is Sky-Futures, a drone device maker with offices in London and Houston, TX. Its fleet of high-performance drones can swoop in and collect high-definition video, still images and data sets in the most complex industrial environments, including oil rigs and gas pipelines. Sky-Futures drone inspections cost roughly 80 percent less than traditional inspections, according to co-founder Chris Blackford in an article in The New York Times.

Sky-Futures operates its drone inspection service in the Gulf of Mexico, North Sea, the Middle East, South East Asia and North Africa, and it works with more than 35 of the biggest oil and gas companies.With fly-by inspections, the Sky-Futures drones deliver both visual and sensor-based data. Using sophisticated data analytics and algorithms that examine gigabytes of sensor information from the drones, companies can locate potential problems undetectable by the human eye—including corrosion. Having this data improves oil rig safety and reduces workplace risk.

Sky-Futures USA has already earned the trust of American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which has certified the company as the world’s first approved drone specialist for internal vessel inspections. ABS surveyors can now tap into certified drone data as an additional inspection tool to make critical decisions affecting classification and statutory surveys.

Sky-Futures collects data through its proprietary inspection tracking software, Expanse, which uses sensor data and images from the drones to generate reports. The software lets inspectors compare and store data sets through time, allowing them to visualize and predict asset condition. The software combines 2-D and 3-D views and stores data in the cloud, so remote inspection teams can share information.

 Ready for Takeoff

Solution providers interested in the industrial drone ecosystem can use these resources: