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Combining Drones and Rope Access to Increase Coverage and Data

By Danny Landry, VP of Business Development & Marketing at Premium Inspection & Testing Group. This article appears in the March/April 2021 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.
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Introduction

In the industrial inspection industry, both rope access and drones have proven their value as promising service lines over the last decade.

Yet, despite this validation and the evidence that each of these methods can help companies realize significant savings for their inspections, many questions still linger about each approach.

In this article, I will share an overview of the benefits each method provides to inspectors. Then I will showcase how these two services can be used together to provide the end user with more coverage and data than are otherwise possible by using each individually.

First off, a bit of background on my own personal experience: when I started my drone inspection company in 2014, I viewed rope access as a direct competitor. I was not alone in this view. Those who work in other inspection service lines, such as scaffolding companies, have also shared with me that they see rope access as a direct threat to the services they offer.

Over time I realized that this view was wrong. Rope access, scaffolding, and drones all provide different ways to collect inspection data and are used in different scenarios, depending on the specific need. Drones and rope access have their own unique benefits and, when used together, they can be used to complete projects with greater efficiency. Furthermore, such an approach can improve coverage and data collection, all while being more cost effective.

The Benefits to Using Drones for Inspections

Drones, also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAs), have been around the inspection industry for years. Although the use of drones for inspections is not new, the increasing number of applications and overall mass adoption of the technology are.

Within the last five years, the industry has graduated from operating nitro powered rotorcraft to more efficient and safer battery powered quadcopters, hexacopters, and octocopters.

Since the inception of drone technology, there has been significant technological progress in the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), batteries, and motors. These advances have allowed for the widespread industrial uses that we see today. Expect to see additional payload offerings (instruments, cameras, etc. attached to the drone) in the coming years that will create even greater cost savings and add more value.

The primary advantage of UAS/drone technology is cost savings through reduced overhead, whether it is less scaffolding, less man hours, or more useful data (leading to better efficiency). In addition, the reduction of exposure in confined spaces and high-risk areas leads to safety improvements as well.

When it comes to inspection applications, drones are still somewhat limited, with their primary value in visual inspection and visual data collection. Some common assets inspected by drone (both internal and external inspections) are flare tips, chimney stacks, fin fans, cooling towers, and tanks. Drones are a tool that must provide results at the desired level of accuracy and fit the application. After all, if it doesn’t make your job easier, provide the needed information and save you money, there probably isn’t a good use for it. Fortunately, almost any petrochemical/refining site has applications for this technology that are beneficial.

A Word of Caution

I’ve seen drone service providers promise the ability to use drones for UT thickness measurements, water sampling, radiation testing, and more. But many of these services are false promises—in fact, the drone industry is notorious for them.

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