From local home inspectors to multinational firms responsible for critical infrastructure, inspection applications are blazing the trail for the commercial adoption of robotic and drone technology. Drones have become essential tools for conducting safety and maintenance inspections and are now in use across an expanding array of industries including agriculture, mining, utilities and manufacturing.
Unmanned, autonomous and remote-operated vehicles offer compelling advantages to inspectors and the companies that employ them. The devices can go places that are difficult, dangerous or impossible to access directly, eliminating the risks to human inspectors, saving money, and improving the accuracy of inspection results.
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The success of this segment is being propelled by steady technical advances across the commercial drone industry. Vehicles themselves, which include unmanned aerial vehicles, robotic crawlers, underwater craft and more, have become increasingly dexterous and reliable. At the same time, designers are taking advantage of more powerful computers to leverage sophisticated artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities both onboard the vehicles and as part of remote control systems. For example, image processing routines driven by neural networks are being used to reliably detect defects and anomalies in assets such as pipelines and railroad tracks with accuracy that rivals that of human inspectors.
Artificial intelligence is also enabling drones to become more autonomous. Historically, autonomous drones have been highly dependent on GPS for navigation, limiting the environments in which they can operate. More powerful, deep learning enabled drones can navigate precisely without GPS, relying on video and other sensor inputs. The freedom from GPS opens a variety of indoor, underground, and otherwise challenging environments from forests to urban centers.
Agriculture was one of the first industries to embrace autonomous vehicles with such early innovations as autonomous tractors that plant seeds at targeted locations and GPS-guided harvesters. Today, agriculture continues to expand into new applications for autonomous vehicles and is increasingly making use of inspections technologies. Images captured by airborne drones are much less expensive than those taken by manned aircraft and are also more detailed than commercially available satellite images. These detailed images provide vital information on crop health, irrigation issues and soil conditions that isn’t always readily apparent at ground level.
With more than 880,000 hectares of cropland in active use in the United States alone, the market for agricultural equipment and services is substantial. Some of the biggest names in agribusiness are betting on inspection drone technology. John Deere is working with Sentera to give its agricultural customers access to AgVault Software and scouting drones. Meanwhile, Dupont has invested in PrecisionHawk which provides drones, sensors, software and services for agricultural customers.
Underground mines present notoriously dangerous conditions and a critical need for reliable inspections technologies. Confined spaces, complete darkness and lack of GPS are just a few of the challenges that must be met to perform mine inspections. New generations of hardened drones are helping penetrate these unforgiving environments. Flyability’s Elios drones are protected by a carbon fiber frame that can withstand collisions of up to 15 kmh. The Elios also features onboard lighting and 2.4 Ghz video feeds that can operate in metallic environments. Unmanned Aerial Services Inc. has used Elios drones to successfully perform multiple demanding inspections in the North American Palladium (NAP) Lac des Iles mine near Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are also making their way into the energy industry. The world’s power transmission grid includes about 6-million kilometers of transmission lines, according to analytics and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Many of these lines pass through remote, rugged landscapes. Effective inspections of the lines, transmission stations, poles, water management facilities, wind farms, solar panels and other infrastructure is vital to anticipate and prevent system failure.
UAVs are helping public and private firms get their arms around the inherent challenges of managing inspections across such vast networks. They are used to capture high-definition video and still images, along with the outputs of many specialized imaging sensors. Thermal imaging, for example, is particularly useful to help identify overheating parts of infrastructure to head-off future problems.
The manufacturing industry, which today accounts for only about 1.5% of industrial drone applications, looks poised to be the next frontier for autonomous vehicle inspections. Current uses for inspection drones in manufacturing are mostly variations of inventory and asset management using visual inspection along with RFID and barcode scanning. However, large manufacturers like Airbus are starting to see the expanded potential for drones. Airbus has been using drones to conduct visual inspections of in-production aircraft. The company estimates that it has reduced a two-hour inspection to only 15 minutes, while also exposing employees to less risk.
The potential addressable market in manufacturing is huge. As drone technologies continue to advance, and more manufacturers adopt them to assist with inspections, manufacturing applications are likely to create significant new opportunities for inspection drone manufacturers, software producers and related service providers.
The effectiveness of integrating autonomous vehicles for inspection will only continue to increase as the functions of the technology continue to improve. Further developments will lead to increased autonomous capabilities, allowing these inspection vehicles to recognize problems and perform small tasks to help fix any issues. As these unmanned vehicles embrace machine learning capabilities, they will become more intelligent and autonomous, making inspection functions more efficient for businesses and opening up new, unique positions for human workers.
Ashley Little is from DO Supply, Inc., an industrial electronics supplier based in Cary, NC. She writes about robotics, machine learning, and the future of automation for industries.