Inspectioneering Journal

The Impact of Drones on Industrial Facilities

By Rami Mattar, Technology Analyst at Amerapex Corporation. This article appears in the March/April 2017 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.


Today we are living in a robotics industry revolution, and unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV), a.k.a. Drone, technology is huge part of it. Drones are growing in use every year, from integration into the National Airspace System, to remote visual inspection of assets and sensing. Even the latest release of the popular video game “Call of Duty” shows how drones could be used in modern wars and security purposes. This will have a great impact on the advancement of this technology through the generations to come.

One potential space is the industrial sector, especially in concentrated industrial zones which require specific and high safety standards, and meticulous record keeping of inspection details.

Application of drones in industrial inspections is not new, although it is still performed by only handful of companies. Market penetration of this technology in the industrial space has been relatively slow. This is because the industry is being overwhelmed with many different technologies and established inspection methods. It becomes a little hard and time-consuming to frequently introduce new tools and present to asset owners and asset integrity program designers the benefit of every new proposed tool; especially when there is lack of recognized historical data challenges with qualifying new UAV Operators.

Outfitting drones with emission measuring equipment can enable fugitive emission inspections. This emission testing can be used on valves, vacuum breakers on tanks, level meters, and all kinds of measuring equipment.   Smaller drones can be used to access close quarters or areas with height limits.

Potential applications include pipeline monitoring, visual inspection, emissions monitoring, overall environment evaluation, laser flow monitoring, and air quality monitoring.

If outfitted with the right GIS (geo special data system / GPS), drones can be effectively used for pipeline inspections. The GIS system is used in pipelines to deliver specific data to the pipeline reliability engineer for every inch of the pipeline called up on the computer. Using drones, an aerial view of the pipeline can be tracked through video and various other sensors.

Flare tip inspections is another huge opportunity for drones in the oil and gas and chemical processing industries. The faster a flare can be thoroughly inspected and returned to service, the less disruption there is to operations and the budget. Moreover, there could be significant reduction in risk to personnel and cost of equipment rentals. The same could be said for inspecting communication towers and power line towers.

Oil rigs and drilling platforms have visual “dropped objects surveys” performed frequently between well services or while in operation. Drones could assist greatly in this regard.

Drones can assist with visual inspections on countless pieces of equipment and infrastructure across a number of industries.

This article proposes an airborne sensor platform for drones based on commercial off-the-shelf components that provide a modularized sensor system and data acquisition infrastructure. The author’s main goal is to provide an overview of the design blocks and give insight toward general system architecture.

This article is intended to provide some helpful perspective, and to discuss possible paths to safer and more cost-effective inspections utilizing UAV technologies.

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