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Here's (almost) everything you needed to know about industrial drones

Here's (almost) everything you needed to know about industrial drones
Several drone manufacturing companies offer industrial drones. But how do you know which to select and use for your requirements?
The industrial drone market is expected to see strong growth in the coming years as customers become more aware of benefits such as reduced costs and higher safety and security. Gartner estimates that the demand for industrial drones grew 50 percent in 2020 over 2019, and this rate could pick up in the coming years.  

We talked to two industrial UAV manufacturers to understand their varied uses, factors driving and limiting demand, and what to know when selecting an industrial drone. The primary function of most industrial drones is to collect visual data in large outer areas or in confined, hard-to-reach internal places. This visual data is typically used for inspection of an asset. Such inspections are performed regularly to identify possible defects in the asset and ensure adequate maintenance.

Also read: What to know about drone security systems before purchasing 

Industrial drone functions

how to select industrial drones
Ankit Mehta
Co-Founder and CEO
ideaForge Technology
Drones have a wide range of applications in these sectors that can be categorized into security & surveillance, surveying, mapping, and asset inspection. In agriculture and heavy industries like manufacturing, mining, and oil & gas, drones help monitor immovable assets, employees, vehicles, and other machinery.

“Drones are used to map large swathes of land to digitize land records in case of agriculture, study project feasibility, and plan new projects such as setting up a new plant, laying pipelines, planning a mining site and so on,” explains Ankit Mehta, Co-Founder and CEO of ideaForge Technology. “This amazing technology has also revolutionized asset inspection by enabling close-up inspection of industrial assets in hard-to-reach or hazardous areas. This has led to an increase in workforce safety while driving down operational and maintenance costs.”
  1. In the oil and gas sector

A company that is quite active in the industrial drone segment is Flyability. Its Elios 2 is used by inspectors in the oil and gas sector to collect visual data inside large assets like diesel tanks, FCC units, and other large assets that require internal inspections.
how to choose and use industrial drones
Zacc Dukowitz
Content Marketing Manager

“The benefit of using drone technology for these internal inspections is that it can replace the need for an inspector to enter them, helping companies realize significant savings and improvements in safety,” explains Zacc Dukowitz, Content Marketing Manager at Flyability. “Savings come primarily from avoiding the need to build costly scaffolding inside an asset for an inspector to stand on (scaffolding costs can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars). The time needed to erect and take down scaffolding prolongs downtimes for assets, which can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost profit.”

Safety improvements come from a person not needing to enter a confined, potentially dangerous space and stand on tall scaffolding to collect visual data about the condition of the asset.
  1. In agriculture

In agriculture, industrial drones can help carry out different kinds of inspections, ranging from soil health, crop health, and assist in fertilizing and monitoring the weather. Dukowitz pointed out that their drone is used to conduct visual inspections inside grain bins.

Given the danger to inspectors of conducting these inspections by physically entering the bins (inspectors have died by drowning in grain while inspecting grain bins), using a drone to collect visual data presents a significant improvement to safety. In addition to safety, drones can also help companies realize substantial savings for grain bin inspections.
  1. Drones in the mining industry

In the mining industry, drones are an excellent tool to conduct surveys of the conditions, especially because of the dangerous working conditions in mines and the difficulty in accessing them. Drone visuals are useful in monitoring the mining site, 3D reconstruction of a site, monitoring operations, hazard assessment, etc.

Dukowitz added that drones could enter stopes and other unstable areas to collect visual data. This data can inform personnel on the stability of the area, which can help them decide whether it’s safe for people or advanced/expensive robotics to enter. This visual data can also help determine whether there is ore left within the area that could still be collected, thus helping companies realize greater profits.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Industrial drones are increasingly used in other sectors like power generation, maritime applications, infrastructure, and utilities.

Factors driving demand for industrial drones

Several factors are driving demand for industrial drones, but two among them stand out.
  1. Awareness and education

The use cases, technology, and evidence of value to support the use of drones already exist. Still, many of the key decision-makers either do not know about drone solutions for their specific internal inspection needs or don’t fully understand how to implement them on a scale. But there is more awareness than ever before, and experts anticipate demand to grow as more customers learn about drone solutions.
  1. Cost and safety concerns

As companies look for ways to lower costs and improve safety, they turn to new technologies and innovations. Drones present an obvious solution for many internal (and external) inspection needs, and pressure to make practices safer and more economical have driven drone adoption throughout several industries in the last few years.
  1. The COVID-19 Impact

COVID-19 has changed several things in almost every industry. Dukowitz explains that the pandemic has driven the adoption of drones for various applications. For internal inspections specifically, companies are now interested in using drones to reduce the number of people used for a job, to support social distancing measures.

“For example, while a manual internal inspection of a coker unit could take a team of 12 people—both to build the scaffolding and to conduct the visual inspection—a drone could reduce that number to just 2 or 3,” Dukowitz said.

Factors hurting demand

Several challenges continue to slow the adoption of industrial drones, despite the apparent benefits. Many large companies are slow to adopt new technology, even if it is thoroughly vetted. Quite often, it’s a fear of doing something new.

“A purchasing decision-maker may have all the information needed to demonstrate the value of using drones instead of people to collect visual data inside of confined spaces but still feel wary about investing in something that they haven’t done before,” said Dukowitz.

Also read: Top autonomous drones 

How to select an industrial drone

Industrial-grade drones must have robust build and certifications to take on the conditions that they need to operate in. The flight time and range of these drones should match those as claimed by the manufacturer. These claimed figures should be in real-world conditions and not in ideal conditions.

But even before considering all these things, the customer should have a clear idea of their own needs. Here are a few steps to follow when selecting an industrial drone.
  1. Identify your requirements  

Dukowitz suggests that instead of thinking about which drone might work for a specific sector, you should think about what you need for your specific job. Drones are just a tool, so thinking about which drone to use for a given sector may not actually help you get a job done. Instead, think about the job you need done, then consider whether a drone could help you do that job better (i.e., more safely, inexpensively, etc.).
  1. Identify the output

After you’ve identified the specific job and decided that a drone is the best solution to do it, determine what exactly you need as an output. Do you need visual data to show the condition of an asset? Do you need thermal data to show you where heat is leaking out of a building?
  1. Identifying sensors and solution providers

Now see which companies offer solutions for your specific use case/scenario. Often most drone applications don’t require special sensors beyond a visual and possibly a thermal sensor. But you must ensure they meet certain standards.

“For security and surveillance purposes, the daylight camera should have HD resolution with a narrow field-of-view so that authorities can detect minute details on-ground,” explains Mehta. “For surveying and mapping applications, the system should have an absolute X, Y accuracy of <10 cm and absolute Z accuracy of <20 cm at 60 m AGL in real-world conditions.”

Moreover, not all visual and thermal sensors are the same. So, make sure to investigate the quality of each—but again, the quality you need will be determined by the specific job you’re going to use the drone to do.

Final thoughts: is cybersecurity an issue?

Cybersecurity is an issue in almost every industry these days but are industrial drones vulnerable? Dukowitz explained that the environments in which their drones typically operate—that is, in confined internal spaces – don’t have access to the internet or GPS, and hence they haven’t faced many cybersecurity challenges.

But in spaces where internet access is possible, drone manufacturing companies may offer UAVs that function entirely offline to avoid cybersecurity risks. Mehta suggests you can also use high-end encryption to prevent data theft and avoid storing data on the drone itself.  

“It is advisable that the system should not have on-board storage and should be stored on a ground control station only,” Mehta concluded. “This greatly reduces the chances of unauthorized users accessing sensitive or confidential data in case the system is ever lost.”
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