Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as Drones were initially developed during World War I for military applications, where they were used to train men in anti-aircraft fighting. But with the rapid awareness of the UAV technology and its benefits, it is one of the most flourishing technologies today that is changing human lives in numerous ways – be it the way wars are fought, or businesses are conducted. UAVs have broken through some of the major commercial and civil industries which once seemed impenetrable by any technology. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that by the year 2020 the amount of drone sales will triple in accordance to the readiness of the markets to embrace this disruptive technology.
Drones are now maturing into a medium of business transformation by reducing costs and time by over 10x while significantly improving personnel safety and are bringing in a revolution, disrupting major sectors such as defence, homeland security and enterprise.
Drones in Various Industries:
India has the fourth longest railway network in the world, divided into 17 zones and operating more than 7,000 trains per day. With the railway network, complex and wide, spread across the entire country through plains and mountains alike, it is one of the most difficult enterprise for maintenance and expansion in the country.
Traditional methods of expansion and maintenance require persons to visit the sites to inspect the infrastructure and then proceed with maintenance work. With the tracks running along hundreds of miles and operating a large number of trains per day, such inspections require interrupting the train schedules which impacts the passenger service schedule. As a result, to avoid such issues, inspection of tracks and maintenance work takes place during a string of relatively short time slots spread over several weeks, when track possession does not impact customer service. Thus, leading to time-dragged inspection, slow-progressive maintenance, higher costs and lower efficiency.
The rapid expansion and maintenance of railway networks is better resolved in a short time with visual data like photos or videos of the site. UAVs offer a great tool to capture the railway network visuals quickly and easily. The information collected using UAVs in the form of imagery / video provides detailed monitoring information of large physical structures with just a few units and delivers ease and flexibility of deployment as well as low maintenance and instrumentation costs. The high-resolution imagery / videography and the accurately processed outputs help capture & measure the actual status of live railway site projects, negating the requirement of physically deploying manpower for checks. It also helps monitor the changes at the project site.
UAV in railways can mainly be used for:
- Preparing contour maps of the area where new rail lines are proposed for preliminary alignments.
- Monitoring Physical Progress of On-going Railway Projects.
- Preparation of 3D models of stations for visualization of existing area for redevelopment.
- Cut and fill volumes can be obtained for preparing land.
- Scope of work estimation can be achieved in cutting mountains or building tunnels.
- GIS enabled 3D models can help project managers map potential risks to construction.
- The number of sleepers can be counted that have been laid on site or the number of bolts attached to the rails.
- Inspection of critical and inaccessible locations of bridges, high embankments, deep cuttings, etc.
- Monitor Electrical Works along railway track for anomalies.
- Thermal cameras can detect if there are any locations where tracks/overhead lines are getting overheated due to friction, faults or corrosion.
- UAVs can be used as first responders in case of natural calamities by quickly assessing damages in railway network and providing crucial insights to emergency personnel.
- UAVs can help map risks to assets such as construction of an overhead bridge on a railway track or condition of railway crossings for saving lives.
- UAVs can help detect risky vegetative growth on electrified tracks to prevent failures or safety risks.
According to PwC Drone Powered Solutions Centre, the aerial data acquisition by UAVs equipped with sensors decrease the capital costs of railway projects by 12% and maintenance by 17%.
Oil & Gas
The oil & gas industry is one of the biggest contributors to the global economy and with adherence to stringent standards, frequent inspection and maintenance in their field is crucial to ensure safety and avoid failures.
Traditional inspection in this industry for monitoring leaks and detecting spills are highly risky as inspectors have to climb high structures of highly toxic and flammable gases with suspension equipment. These inspections can also prove to be immensely costly as it typically requires facilities to shut down for days or weeks as the assets can be inspected only after they cool down, losing millions of dollars.
Real-time visual monitoring of the various oil & gas infrastructure is possible with the help of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) even without shutting them down. Drones can be employed effortlessly around flare stacks, oil rigs and along long miles of pipeline for monitoring of leaks or gas emissions, detecting spills, corrosion and heat spots. In the oil & gas industry, drones can collect inspection data from across an entire tank farm in a few hours’ time. Global technology major estimates that the inspection time can be cut by half by using drones depending on the assets being inspected.
Other applications of drones in the oil & gas industry:
- Asset monitoring
- Oil Refinery facilities & Storage tank inspections
- Chimney Inspections
- Drilling Facilities inspection
- Noxious inspections (Poisonous gas detection) etc.
- Augmentation of line walkers in vulnerable areas
Drones can further provide linear coverage of 13 times more when compared to manual inspections, along with saving 35-90% of expenditure on inspections.
Solar Farm Inspection
In Solar Farms, the solar panels are usually prone to manufacturing defects or mechanical damage from careless use or insufficient maintenance like scratches, cracks or dirt accumulation. There also occur breaks in the integrity of individual layers of the panel caused by internal tensions of the cell. These often lead to irreversible damage to the defective cell, as well as to the whole panel if not inspected and repaired at regular intervals.
Most of the mentioned defects result in the occurrence of hot places, known as hotspots. This is where there is an increased recombination of electrons, leading to excessive heating and the thermal difference compared with good cells can be higher than 50°C. In drone inspections, thermal cameras fitted to drones capture such data efficiently to ensure a failure-free operation, at lower costs and time. With thermal imaging using the drones, the solar farm can be scanned during normal operations and detect anomalies that are not visible to the naked eye to make immediate actionable decisions.
Solar farm inspections with drones can reduce 70-80% of the time required for inspection by manual methods.
In mining operations, regular stockpile volume measurement is important as it indicates the amount of raw material extracted and helps plan the subsequent steps effectively. The traditional method of volume measurement employs surveyors to walk the stockpile in a grid pattern taking measurements using traditional surveying equipment to generate contour lines from which analysts can calculate volumetric measurement of the stockpile. This process is time consuming and labour intensive.
Using drones for volume measurement of stockpile is safer, faster, less time consuming and a more accurate data gathering approach. The gathered data digitally maps existing conditions and measure stockpile volumes for inventory management, production forecasts, and auditing etc.
The accuracy of the measurement is usually around 2-5% of the stockpile volume and these are measurements made in a much shorter time than manual inspections.
In the construction sector, drones are revolutionizing the planning stages along with land surveying, data capturing and inspecting construction sites. So far, construction sector has the 239% growth in the adoption of drones and it is the highest drone usage sector. The construction industry has embraced drones for their ability to provide quick inspection response, high precision and accuracy, reduced inspection equipment downtime, time reduction and more.
In the construction industry, drones provide 52% reduction in data collection time, along with 5-20% cost savings and 61% more accurate measurement.
Drones find a special seat in highway construction projects as drones can survey the entire land in a very short time and provide for data for planning and monitoring. Combining near real time video monitoring with high resolution geospatial inputs, drones can offer solution for feasibility studies, Detailed Project Reports and project monitoring. Drones with their competent capabilities are the perfect tool for companies working on highway projects.
In India, 25,000 deaths occur every year due to fire and related accidents. The task of saving lives during fire is entrusted with the fire department and the firefighters even though well-trained face many challenges. There are a million things that could go wrong but situational awareness at such a crucial time can change the game preventing damage and saving lives.
A fire can become life-threatening in just 2 minutes and clog the area with toxic smoke. The most precious asset of firefighters in such situations is their ability to see iin the fire and locate victims but smoke robs them of that. For firefighters, the ability to see through smoke and have an understanding of all the hotspots and building structure’s entry and exit can make all the difference in saving many lives.
Drones with their capability of capturing thermal videos collect vital information about on-going fire and in turn can help focus the firefighters’ efforts on where their help is needed the most, while keeping them safe. Drones can also be very effectively used in:
-Hazardous Material Incidents: Drones can provide details about liquid levels, temperature and their reaction in containers. It can also evaluate leaking of gases/liquids to determine the location of vapor clouds
-Electrical hotspots/overhaul: Overheating light ballasts or other electrical equipment/wiring can be identified with drones during smoke investigations.
-Hotspot Detection in Fire: Smouldering hot spots invisible to the naked eye can be spotted with drones and help firefighters avoid them.
-Size up: Observing buildings under fire from the exterior with the help of drones to determine towards which direction the fire is actively spreading
Disasters wreak havoc on human life and property while testing the most fundamental instinct of human survival. In an event of disaster, even with the tried and tested disaster management protocols, one thing that stands out is that it is a race against time. The first 72 hours of the disaster are the most crucial period in which the Search and Rescue (SAR) operations have to be conducted quickly and efficiently enough to save lives. The need for situational awareness for driving SAR operations is highly critical. Drones are the answer to this; they provide a birds-eye view of the entire disaster-affected area in a very short time.
The real-time transmitted videos by drones provide first responders with on-ground situational awareness and better understand the extent of structural damages, the state of transportation infrastructure and location of stranded survivors. This helps them plan and respond efficiently with minimal resources.
With drones, logistical planning becomes easy and taking decisions about resource allocation becomes easier. Drones can even help in directing the stranded people to safe locations. When physical rescue operations are on a standstill during the night, drones equipped with a thermal imaging payload can work tirelessly in the night to locate and tag survivors for fast and efficient rescue. Drones can also be used to set-up a temporary ad hoc communication infrastructure in disaster struck areas to connect mobile devices to the nearest network. Computer vision based approaches and sensory data analysis with the aid of drone images for government reports and insurance related field-surveys can further help in analysing damage in greater detail. Drones can also be used for pre-disaster preparedness.
During disaster management, drones can provide aerial coverage of approximately 25x the area as compared to boots-on-ground.
Goldman Sachs reports that drones will be a $100 billion market by 2020 with the fastest expansion in businesses and civil government. With the drone market slowly establishing itself as a standalone business and creeping its way into different sectors, the demand for drones are expected to trigger job opportunities. Careers like pilots, UAV operators, engineers, data processing and analysis experts, ranging from full-time to contract-based work are definitely in the game. Already, the number of certified remote pilots grown to 115,000 which is 50% more over the previous year. It is predicted that there will be 100,000 drone-related jobs set to takeoff over the next few years.
A study conducted by Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC) estimates that the manpower requirement for people with UAV operating skills in construction sector alone is to be approximately 2.5 lakhs in the coming years, with highways, roads, bridges and housing taking the lead.
Apart from these, with drone manufacturing industry slowly building up in India, jobs related to drone manufacturing, assembling, service, repair and operation are also readily springing up.
- Technology maturity in new use-cases
Advanced research and technological integration are still under process in varied fields for drones. With companies starting to integrate them in their day-to-day inspection functions, the technology will further become mature enough to be deployed confidently across different applications as well.
- Psychological barriers
People still have the notion that UAVs are quite costly and will just increase the complexity of their work, but they have to overcome such psychological barriers. They have to look beyond their fear to fully understand the benefits of UAVs as a complementary tool to their work.
- Data security
The data captured by drones are usually very confidential data and there is a rising concern about the data security as the data transmitted to cloud are vulnerable to cyber-threats. The implementation of high security systems with encrypted bands ensures effective protection for this problem.
Exploiting the potentials of UAVs at scale and readily testing them out in different domains will make it evident that, with drones the possibilities are extremely huge, cheap and less time consuming. The industry is definitely at a place where It is now only a matter of reaping the benefits of drones by tailoring their benefits to one’s needs.
(The author is Co-Chair, FICCI Committee on Drones and Co-Founder & CEO, IdeaForge Technology Pvt Ltd)