Inspectioneering Journal

Drones for Visual Testing & Inspection

By Jason C. Shankle, Vice President of Operations at United Dynamics Corporation. This article appears in the January/February 2014 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.


UAS (Unmanned Arial System) drone technology has numerous applications, including anything at elevated heights or where human access and/or occupancy are prohibited, or in the case of confined spaces, limited. These applications include stacks, flares, cooling towers, bridges, cell phone towers, wind turbines, aerial land surveys, and inside the furnace of a boiler, just to name a few.

Serving as a large utility boiler inspector for the last 15 years and speaking for those in a similar capacity regardless of the industry, how many times have we all said the familiar phrase and placed the request to our clients: “Provide access for further inspection”? For me personally, too many times; and I have longed for an effective, cost sensitive solution.

For example, let’s say you are looking at a component or piece of equipment that is 40’ high and you are conducting this inspection from what would be considered the ground elevation. How can one actually perform a thorough inspection without proper access to upper elevations? Or, you see something that is 40’ above your head which you deem to be a point of interest but you cannot get close enough to validate your discovery. What are your options from this point forward?

These are all relevant questions and scenarios that inspectors dread. At one time or another, we as inspectors have all been victim to such dilemmas. However, through the use of a UAS (Unmanned Arial System), more commonly referred to as a drone, we are now able to access these areas for an up-close and personal look. By utilizing drones, these “from a distance” discoveries can be validated without the use and/or cost associated with traditional methods such as scaffold erection, sky-climbers, or rappelling.

Figure 1. Two technicians, multi-rotor drone unit, and ground station & controls system.
Figure 1. Two technicians, multi-rotor drone unit, and ground station & controls system.

As of late, drones, more specifically the helicopter-type, have gained significant publicity. Applied on a higher and more sophisticated scale, this technology lends itself as the ideal platform for a device which can support visual inspections with pinpoint accuracy and high definition clarity. As concluded by our studies and extensive testing, the energy industry benefits most from a helicopter-type drone of multi-rotor design.

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