Engineers aren’t known for taking risks lightly – what we do doesn’t allow for error, and taking a risk brings in too much scope for error. If engineers are slightly cautious, engineer-surveyors are even more so.
But being in a traditional, perhaps even cautious sector, doesn’t mean that we aren’t always looking for new ways to solve old problems. And increasingly, those new ways are tech-based. One of the most exciting applications of new technology I have encountered is drones.
Safety always has, and always will be, paramount for engineering – not just at the design and build stage but throughout the lifetime of the equipment. This is why there are substantial and clear regulations around the inspection and upkeep of equipment such as cranes and other lifting equipment.
Periodic, thorough examinations of lifting equipment must be completed every six or twelve months unless a risk-based examination scheme is in place. But for most, this regular and necessary examination requirement can mean undertaking a lengthy and expensive process, usually involving MEWPs or erecting scaffolding every single time.
This is fine because it’s necessary, but I said, we are always looking for new ways to solve old problems, and drones have shown themselves to have an important and cost-effective role to play in equipment examinations.
We have been exploring the potential role for drones for some time, but it is a conservative sector, so it took a while before a client willing to try them appeared. In 2016, that innovator presented themselves and asked us to explore the use of drones to examine their crane equipment.
Reducing risk, cost and time
Their motivation was to save time and cost and reduce the risk of working at height in completing the examination. So, sending a drone up to do the job seemed like the best option. And it was – the client was able to have the examination completed within hours rather than days and at a fraction of the cost. The future for drones in engineering examinations had just been opened up.
But before engineers run towards drones en masse to solve their examination problems, there are limitations to what drones can do. A thorough examination requires all our senses of which drones can only (currently) replicate one – vision—but even having that one sense digitised can bring immense benefits.
One recent example is where I had to examine a number of runway tracks and overhead cranes for a company – trouble was, they were incredibly awkward to access.
Traditional Access Methods
We looked at other options, such as a cherry picker, but even that wouldn’t provide the necessary access, and the hope was that we could avoid the cost and delay of bringing in scaffolding. Thankfully, during the initial accessed examination, nuts and bolts were marked with contrasting paint to help identify any movement in the structure—something that a drone-mounted camera could monitor with ease and impressive precision.
The realisation that the drone could help manage this aspect of the examination led us to investigate how they could reduce the need for annual, hands-on reviews. In the end, we we’re able to develop an examination scheme that used drones on an annual basis to check for movement with the full, accessed examination taking place every three years.
The savings made by removing the cost of scaffolding in two out of every three years is significant. If no deterioration is noted during the three-year cycle, we can extend the period between accessed examinations and all the cost that entails, to five years.
That is significant whichever metric you are using to measure effectiveness, but it is only scratching the surface of how drones can assist examinations. And while the applications may be somewhat limited today, I have every confidence that drones will play an increasingly significant role in engineering examinations as the tech develops and as engineers see just what they are capable of.
By Andy Kidd, Chief Engineer at British Engineering Services Ltd