We all know it’s important to keep transmission lines, power plants, warehouses, and smokestacks running efficiently. But there’s no way around it — infrastructure inspection is risky business. Or at least it has been. Sending workers up towers or on top of roofs contributes to falls, the leading cause of death in construction, according to OSHA. Helicopters are a fast way to inspect a pipeline or transmission line, but they pose a certain amount of risk as well.
You can see where this is going. Many of the companies that I work with in energy, oil and gas, construction, and engineering were first drawn to drones as a way to improve worker safety. They prevent people from working at height as often and eliminate the risks of helicopters altogether. Of course, they quickly find that, in many cases, drones help them to identify weaknesses more quickly than older, riskier methods. This lowers risks for workers, and for the rest of us. More reliable energy pipelines, transmission lines, bridges, and roads benefit everyone.
Here are some of the key ways that companies are using drones to maintain infrastructure.
Workforce safety benefits of drone inspections
Working at height isn’t the only risk inspectors face. The dangers also include being exposed to toxic chemicals or emissions, working near moving machinery, surveying structures near speeding traffic or high-voltage equipment, and rappelling. These risks can be multiplied when the asset is in disrepair.
Drones make it possible to surveil structures from the ground and at a safe distance. As BVLOS waivers become more common, field workers will be able to rely almost exclusively on drones to inspect gas pipelines and power lines, reducing the miles they have to drive on poorly maintained back roads.
“Many of the things we’ve done in traditional ways have required manned helicopters, humans climbing things, or our people getting in harm’s way to do inspections or routine maintenance,” notes Harry Nuttall, director of system air for Southern Company, the Atlanta-based energy company with natural gas, electric, and other business operations across 19 states. “Putting an unmanned system in there really enhances safety and efficiency.”
Drones are especially valuable following disasters, when damaged infrastructure systems need immediate assessment, but conditions are still hazardous. Drone pilots using platforms like Skyward can launch immediately using the automated LAANC approval process. They can also see temporary flight restrictions, and coordinate safe flights with colleagues who may also be flying drones or other aircraft.
Here are some of the types of infrastructure inspections that are becoming dramatically safer with UAS.
- Transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, to identify vegetation encroachment and wildfire fuels buildup, leaning power poles, sagging wires, snagged metallic balloons, equipment wear, vandalism, and more
- Oil and natural gas pipelines, for leak detection and equipment corrosion
- Vertical structures—nuclear cooling towers, storage tanks, smokestacks, piers, and the like—to look for signs of wear and anomalies
- Dams and levees, to identify structural defects and needed repairs, and assure environmental compliance/avoid stop-work claims during replacement work
- Bridges, underpasses, overpasses and culverts, for cracks, wear, general conditions
- Roads and freeways, to assess cracking and maintenance needs of pavement
- Municipal water systems—aqueducts, fish ladders on older dams, reservoirs—for leak detection, environmental monitoring, vegetation management, equipment maintenance, and security
- Railways, to check for wear, vegetation, rocks, and security on tracks, as well as conditions of bridges, poles, and yards
- Utility-scale solar facilities, for locating sub-performing arrays and repair needs
- Onshore and offshore wind turbines, to detect cracks and other maintenance needs
- Emergency, post-weather-event, and post-disaster damage assessments of all of the above
Improved reliability and public safety from UAS
There are no national statistics collected on how many injuries and deaths are caused by deteriorating U.S. infrastructure. But casualties from fires caused by high-voltage power lines, dam failures, collapsed bridges, railroad derailments, gas pipeline explosions, and roads in poor condition appear in headlines with growing frequency. The stresses of climate change don’t help.
UAS can play an important role in improving the reliability of water, energy, and transportation systems. By enabling inspections that are much faster, more accurate, cheaper, and safer, drones let infrastructure managers do better monitoring more often. They provide more timely understanding of what needs attention.
Risk management benefits for corporations and government
The public agencies, utilities, and companies that own or manage infrastructure systems also reduce their risks. By keeping the field force out of harm’s way, drones curtail injuries and the lost work hours that come with them. Medical, workers compensation insurance, and liability insurance expenses can also shrink as the safety record improves. Better data reporting and improved compliance with environmental regulations bring still more risk-abatement benefits.
It’s not too late for drones to make a big impact
Yes, many U.S. bridges, dams, highways, energy, and water systems have exceeded their expected lifespans. But not everything is on the brink of collapse. American infrastructure remains among the world’s best. It’s likely much of the fragility can be remedied before they cause widespread economic disruption. For example, a Reuters analysis found that, while about 9 percent of highway bridges were structurally deficient in 2017, only 4 percent of bridges carrying significant traffic were.
The scope of inspection is vast—100,000 miles of levees, 14,000 dams, 170,000 miles of railroad tracks, 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines. Speed and prioritization are key. UAS technology is proving to be an excellent—and much safer—tool for the job. With the coming of 5G, we can expect to see connected drones conducting BVLOS inspections autonomously, further accelerating this crucial work.
Interested in drone infrastructure inspections? Skyward’s consulting team can help you get a new drone program off the ground or advise on how to scale. We develop proofs of concept, train teams, partner on waivers, set up efficient workflows, and make sure you maximize ROI. Get a free consultation.