Integrating drones is difficult for any business, but when it comes to managing and dealing with critical infrastructure like Murphy, this is amplified.
Commercial Drone Professional speaks to Muprhy’s Jack Selman, innovation manager, to find out how for Murphy, a leading global, multi-disciplined engineering and construction company founded in 1951, just how easy, or difficult, implementing and integrating this innovative tech is.
Tell us how drones help with what Murphy does as a business?
Murphy is a global civil engineering and infrastructure specialist, we operate out of the UK, Ireland and Canada. We serve the majority of infrastructure sectors so we build roads, bridges, railways and everything that railways include, such as platforms, stations and track.
We do utilities; gas, electric and water that runs underneath the roads, larger assets that run cross country and even some stuff that runs off-shore in our marine environment, like large gas installations and wind farms.
We also operate in the water and natural resources sectors, and have a strong buildings and property development operation currently focused mainly in the south-east. In summary – the work we deliver is rather varied.
Murphy is unusual in this industry in that we directly employ about 80% of our own staff and workforce. This means all of the work that we deliver is by Murphy people. We train our own people, we deploy our own designers, our own engineers, safety teams, project managers, IT teams and surveyors. So, from the very beginning of a project, all the way to project handover and in some cases operation, we can deliver the full package.
Over the years, we have begun to use drone technology. I started using it around 6-7 years ago when I was still an engineer working on cross country pipelines and we were aware of this technology, which at the time was an emerging technology, and it was beginning to disrupt the RC market.
How has the focus on drones evolved in that time?
In the past few years, I’ve spent time driving this internally to convince the business that we should adopt drone usage wider. A couple of years ago, I joined the innovation team as we launched our own dedicated innovation capability. After many trials in many parts of the business, we have purchased two drones and have begun to train five pilots. They are in the survey team full-time, and our Plant business own the hardware.
The reason that this is particularly interesting for us as a business is because we do have the flexibility and capability to deliver survey work in-house. For other contracting firms that operate on a subcontracting basis, the amount of control you have over your own staff is limited. Because we have oversight of the entire process it is quite an interesting opportunity for us to experiment with some of the technology and realise the benefits; the operational immediate benefits, and also the long term benefits of design efficiency, reduction in cost, safety provisions, so it is very exciting.
We’ve had people across the business who have been bringing in subcontractors for their own project-specific requirements, and we have not wanted to curtail this in anyway. It is fantastic that we are taking the opportunity to continually improve how we deliver work for our clients. We’ve been working with suppliers very openly and honestly, with full transparency that we intend to bring this capability in-house in the future, albeit relatively basic and simple.
Ultimately, we are a construction and infrastructure specialist company, and have no interest in replacing the current titans of the UAV industry. Rather, we want to learn from and grow with them, to enhance our own internal capabilities as much as theirs.
Have you got a time frame in mind for you to get that operational?
What we have found is when they do have the opportunity to take these units out for a spin and work their way up to the PfCO, a few of them have taken a few knocks and bumps – which is absolutely what we expected. What we didn’t expect is that every time there is a repair, the process can be considerably lengthy and have a real impact on our programme for training. Delays through the supply chain means that there is quite a lot of lag.
By the end of this year, I am hopeful that we have trained pilots and they are producing operational benefits for the teams that they’re supporting.
Can you explain more about the training process?
Yes, we’re using COPTRZ for the orientation and exam, however at the moment the teams are still accruing their required practise flying time to permit them to sit the exam. The team have been through a bit of the exam process, they’ve had a few tutorials with the team at COPTRZ. They’ve come in and have shown the basics and shown some more advanced manoeuvres but now it is up to us to go away and get a little bit more experience before we can come back and get signed off.
Do you use COPTRZ for more services than just training?
Yes, we use COPTRZ for the full package. It works well, we use all DJI products so from COPTRZ we’ve got 2 DJI Matrice 210s with telescopic 30x high-res lenses.
Across the business, what tangible benefits can you see drones adding?
I’m confident that this is an incredibly disruptive technology and I think we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what they can do for us.
One of our projects used Sensat for a survey and, traditionally, they would have had to send two engineers to walk along a 60km spread to take GPS co-ordinates and build a very loose 2m by 2m grid to give back to the designers and engineers. That would have taken 11 weeks and it takes two highly skilled engineers off the table for that time and, of course, by the time they’ve got to the end, a lot has happened in 11 weeks. There might change at the start, whereas, with Sensat, it took the team eight days and they were given billions of points, including 60 metres either side of the spread.
The difference in quality is vast, the speed is incredibly different and we are also able to deploy our resources in more valuable ways.
I think there are a lot of instances like that where we can generate data which is of a higher quality, to a high enough standard so it meets our client’s requirements whilst eliminating the need to use up valuable project resource at the same time.
It will bring about behavioural and cultural change, as the teams start to appreciate and understand what can be done with a drone. At the moment, there are a few people out there that understand it but part of the purpose of this trial is to demonstrate what is possible with this technology.
We’re also interested in stimulating some less obvious opportunities for the business, for example through our communications and marketing teams. I’d like to build an internal library that allows us to share these videos internally – so if we have people joining the business, people that are starting projects of a variety that they haven’t come across before, they can go and see a video and learn about what they’ll be doing. We could maybe use some of these videos to focus on very specific engineering challenges so we don’t actually have to take lots of people on site to show them.
A good example is the rail sector. The safety and operational benefits are amplified when working in a live rail environment, as access to the track is restricted. Typically, provided you are trained and competent and have been inducted onto a construction site, you are allowed entry. However, in the rail sector, there are instances where track access has to be planed weeks and even months in advance. Very specific, safety critical roles are mandatory for site visits, so what would have been a 2-5 person trip soon mushrooms into a 15-20 person trip that you’ve had to plan months in advance.
If we can provide information to our rail teams without the risk, cost and time it takes to traditionally conduct these activities, then we can deliver significant value externally too.
We’re seeing that, as well as business benefits, the safety implications for companies are huge. Is this the same for yourselves?
Yes, absolutely. The application of this technology will dictate the extent to which operational and safety benefits may be realised, but the simple act of taking people off site, away from hazardous environments, is of huge value. As mentioned before, the rail sector is a great example where this is compounded due to the safety critical, high-risk nature of the works delivered there. Similar applications could include working at height on bridges or structure, in confined spaces, or around industrial grade machinery and equipment like excavators or bulldozers. That site interface is dynamic, fast changing and complex – and so anything we can do to remove people from that interface whilst still maintaining (or better yet – enhancing) operational output is of tremendous importance.
It has been interesting to see how different companies have been approaching using drones, what was your thinking behind having your staff doing the work?
We give our clients assurance of quality, risk and time by maintaining control and oversight over our own operations. By deploying our own staff we are able to respond to the needs of clients with maturity, agility and resilience – and the UAV pilots are a brilliant, exemplar extension of this.
For our clients, they benefit from an in house, strong engineering and construction capability that is capable of delivering end-to-end projects. Our UAV team will enable us to enhance this capability further.
A good example of this would be for emergency works – any project where we are given short notice and have to mobilise a significant number of people, machines and materials to deliver critical repair works. Now, for us to be able to render those services from a supplier, clients would be paying a premium rate if we want that sort of notice period. Availability is also an issue – suppliers may not have the resource required to support us.
By using our own team, we have much greater control over how we operate. We can respond much more effectively to the ever changing needs of this industry.
Technology in this industry is advancing at such a pace I think it would be a mistake for us not to invest in this capability now. A time will come when the UK Government and the CAA relax their stance on BVLOS operation. I want Murphy to be in a position to leverage this opportunity once the decision is made. By developing this in house capability now, we will be in a better position to evidence to the CAA that we are a competent, well-behaved, law-abiding and safe drone operator with plenty of operations under our belt. Expanding into BVLOS will enable us to keep the workforce even safer, work with even more agility, and pass more savings and value onto our clients.
Do you expect your operations to expand further as soon as you are fully operational?
That is my personal hope. The work that the innovation team do is to deliver small scale, quarantined, low risk, and proof of concept trials. By taking a measured approach to trial delivery, we can explore and decide on whether or not to scale up a project or put it on hold. Ultimately, this has to add value to the business and our clients, and it must be sustainable.
We may well find that an internal UAV operation is not the right thing for us at the time, which is fine. We continue to learn, develop and grow.
I am very hopeful though, and I’m really looking forward to the thought of expanding our fleet. A lot of people here at Murphy are massive proponents of the technology – at all levels within the business. Some even believe that every engineer should have one of these in the back of their van – so we look at this as just another tool like any other and one that we can keep using and scale up.
At the minute, it is about seeing which parts of the business will see the most benefit. Is it the building sector, is it the water sector, is it our energy sector? That will steer and guide where we will increase expenditure.
Do you predict that any specific parts of the business will benefit more than other?
Yes, it is definitely large scale, linear projects. For example, cross country cables, gas pipelines, water pipelines, rail. As the majority of these projects are delivered through the countryside, the risks posed by UAV operate tend to be relatively low when combined with urban operation. The long runs of open field, in conjunction with relatively low accuracy requirements for earthworks-based tasks, lend themselves very well to applications of photogrammetric modelling.
Finally, what is it about DJI drones that makes you use them?
DJI are one of the most prevalent drone manufacturers in the world.Whilst I have considered other platforms, DJI was the choice due to their longevity and experience in quite a young industry.
If we’re looking at this as a long term solution, I want to make sure that we are using a long term supply partner.
This article was released as part of CDP’s print magazine distributed at the Commercial UAV Show.
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