OPINION: It’s time for drones to be seen as an extension of the engineering inspector’s eyes

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There is still some scepticism and misunderstanding around the capabilities and deployment of drones in inspection situations. But they can elevate the inspections process and lead to a safer, faster and better-blended approach if they are utilised correctly, writes Kyle Veitch at Bureau Veritas.

Ten years ago, the use of UAV technology – drones – was limited to the military arena and wasn’t something that was readily available from a commercial or industrial perspective.

Fast forward to 2018 and whilst it is certainly not commonplace, the strategic deployment of drones as part of blended approach to inspection is now being hailed as a best practice approach, with many distinct advantages.

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It’s also something that is here to stay. Reports estimate that the impact of drones on the UK economy will be £16bn in net cost savings by 2030 and the use of drones will boost ‘multi-factor’ productivity* by 3.2% during the same period.

This prediction comes alongside the more prolific use of drones across UK industries including: health and safety; construction and manufacturing; the public sector; utilities; technology, media and communications, plus many more. It’s therefore not a surprise that it is also predicted there will be more than 76,000 drones in UK skies by 2030.

The advantages of drones

In terms of inspection, drones offer a number of invaluable capabilities and benefits when used in partnership with traditional methods of assessment and supervision. There are two distinct advantages of using drones in inspection; as an access solution and for building condition assessment.

As an access solution, using drones can be an efficient and effective method of conducting an initial visual assessment of large or difficult to access equipment or locations, at minimal risk and without disrupting production on-site.

Deployed as an extension of the engineering inspector’s eyes and using a technically competent operator on the ground, drones can add value by efficiently identifying particular defects or areas of concern that require further assessment by an inspector. It means that when it comes to carrying out any further inspection or remedial works, the exact location can be pinpointed – removing the guess work and allowing everyone involved to identify and respond often through planned preventative maintenance.

Deploying this blended approach to inspection is particularly valuable as a response to the increasingly crowded environments engineering inspectors are finding on-site. As new systems and equipment are regularly introduced, inspectors are having to navigate more complex spaces, which can prove challenging.

Arranging access may require closing off a section of a facility or shutting down completely for a period of time, which can lead to costly downtime – as well as being inconvenient and taking longer. In this instance, using a drone for an initial assessment may reduce the need for equipment such as Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPs) and scaffolding on-site and allow the engineering inspector visual access quickly and easily.

Drones are also now capable of close-up surveillance of even the tallest and most inaccessible structures as well as of confined internal spaces including as larges tanks, warehouses, roof spaces, boilers and cellars, where they can be used to pick up on minute yet highly important details including corrosion and cracking.

The latest advances in collision-resistant and collision-tolerable UAVs also enable them to ‘bounce’ off surfaces and roll along walls without getting damaged or damaging the structure, meaning they can cope with the challenges of demanding environments.

Saving valuable resources, drone use also enables condition assessment of an entire site at a fraction of the time, even in challenging weather conditions. The end product is a total inspection solution that delivers a complete overview of a building’s infrastructure whilst meeting all relevant regulatory requirements.

What’s more, UAVs have greatly enhanced the arsenal of techniques and documentation now at the disposal of many safety teams by allowing them to get up close, look at the structure from different angles and gather a variety of footage including high definition video, photographic and thermographic imagery.

In terms of building condition assessment, drone deployment is ideal as an efficient method of monitoring the construction progress and creating a record of data for the future. As well as efficiently conducting a visual assessment, drones can also collect three-dimensional information that can be integrated with existing building information modelling (BIM) systems and original

The use of drones is estimated to have a significant impact on the construction and manufacturing industries as a whole, with an estimated £8.6bn GPD uplift in the UK alone by 2030. There is also the efficiency factor, with an estimation that site surveys can be up to 400 times quicker using drones, compared to traditional, labour-intensive surveying. Using drones for select activities can also reduce risk, enhance safety performance and free up staff to focus on value-added rather than labour intensive activities.

According to latest figures, contractors in the construction industry are also increasingly using state-of-the-art technology such as drones, laser scanning and wearable devices such as smart helmets to enhance safety, with a staggering 82% reporting a marked improvement in workplace safety. This figure is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years as such devices become a part of everyday working practices.

Industry adoption

Despite the potential drones offer in terms of improving accessibility and efficiency, many sectors have been slow to adopt the use of drones in inspections and surveying, mainly down to a misconception that it is still a relatively new technology with an unproven track record compared to other tried and tested methods.

Others meanwhile believe the process is too complex, involving many risks such as complying with the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) strict airspace restrictions. In reality, whilst the initial set up can indeed be complicated, certification and inspection specialists have the expert skills and knowledge, underpinned by a clear and concise system, in place that advises clients of some of the working conditions required to operate drone inspections – making the whole process seamless and easy to implement.

This includes all required registrations with the CAA to ensure everything is done properly, legally and is commercially viable. An approved partner can also ensure the full control of the working area to ensure no employees, equipment or infrastructure is put at risk through the deployment of blended inspection, such as cranes will be working or operating at the time of the inspection.

Another important factor to consider is radio interference, where nearby Wi-Fi routers and phone network towers using a similar frequency as the drone can interfere with its signal. However, this can be addressed by carrying out a thorough spectrum analysis prior to flight, which again would be covered by an approved partner.

Transforming inspection

In a bid to raise awareness and dispel some of the misconceptions around using drones, Bureau Veritas is currently targeting industries such as the construction and manufacturing, automotive and quarry management sectors, where the use of drones is expected to revolutionise the inspection process.

Through a recent partnership with Sky-Futures, one of the world’s leading provider of drone-based inspections services, Bureau Veritas is able to utilise the latest advances in collision-resistant and collision-tolerable drones. This new approach, which is now available in the UK and Europe, allows greater access to restricted or awkward areas that would have previously only been possible through the use of MEWP’s, scaffolding and in some cases weather-dependent light aircrafts or helicopters.

Proving its credentials, during a recent inspection of multinational customer operating a large manufacturing site in the UK, Bureau Veritas’s blended inspection offering was able to provide huge benefits including drastically aiding quality control by aerially inspecting key areas such as the manufacturing line and the roof. While traditionally this would have involved the slow and costly process of setting up scaffolding, using drones meant the roof could be examined quickly and hassle-free whilst the inspections were taking place inside.

The result was that an inspection that would have typically taken many days and required production to shut down took less than one day of work and was completed in normal running conditions – meaning a significant efficiency saving for the customer.

This is just one example of the tangible benefits drones can offer, as further advances in technology will result in easier to deploy UAVs, with longer flight times and better cameras capable of enhanced data acquisition and repeatable automated flight routes.

What is clear when it comes to embracing drones, is that early adoption is crucial as this blended approach to inspection will no doubt become more common place. The use of drones presents a myriad of opportunities to make the process of testing and inspection much safer, better and faster, especially for companies looking to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to best practice and retain that all-important competitive edge.

Kyle Veitch is technical, quality & risk director for North West Europe at Bureau Veritas, a global leader in testing, inspection and certification. 

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Carly Hacon

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