Many of the most valuable use cases for drones rely on thermal imaging. Standard camera drones provide amazing visual data from the air, capturing perspectives that were difficult or impossible to get before. But a drone equipped with a thermal camera can do even more — it can capture data that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Data captured by infrared sensors is critically important for infrastructure inspections. It allows electrical utilities to detect hotspots in transmission lines. It enables construction companies to check HVAC efficiency and detect air leakage. And inspecting solar panels with a thermal camera can produce rich results in a fraction of the typical time.
If you’ve looked into thermal imaging, you’ve probably heard of FLIR Systems. FLIR is the world’s leading thermal imaging company, and their name is synonymous with infrared sensors. Recently, we were joined on a Skyward webinar by Brett Kanda, Business Development Manager, Components Business at FLIR. Also on our panel was European drone manufacturer Parrot. We discussed Parrot’s ANAFI drones, two of which are equipped with FLIR cameras.
Throughout the panel we shared how ANAFI drones can be used for infrastructure inspections, along with some general best practices for thermal inspections. Since thermography is such a relevant technology to our customers, I wanted to share a few of those insights.
How does FLIR thermal imaging work?
We started with an overview of thermal imaging basics. Brett explained that FLIR sensors are able to sense the infrared band of the electromagnetic spectrum — which means they can measure light below the frequency that the human eye can see. It’s another way of saying that infrared sensors can detect and measure temperature differences without having to touch an object.
Thermal imaging systems, like the one on the ANAFI USA, enhance drone operators’ perception and awareness across many industries and use cases. These include:
- Sensing and avoiding obstacles while flying drones in complete darkness
- Seeing through obscurants such as smoke or fog
- Measuring temperature values within every pixel of an image
- Locating people who are hidden from view in search and rescue operations
What are some use cases for infrared imaging with an ANAFI drone?
We focused on three inspection use cases in which the ANAFI’s thermal imaging capabilities would be especially useful.
Drone solar panel inspections
Industrial solar panel farms may be huge — hundreds of acres in size. Traditionally, inspecting solar panels is a manual process. A technician walks or drives the full length of the solar farm, plugging a handheld device into every string of solar panels and downloading data. This can take days, and the panels must be shut down for the device to be plugged in. At the end of the process, the technician uploads the data back at the office for analysis. Between data collection, processing, and reporting, it can take weeks to obtain results.
With the ANAFI, a team has all the tools they need to evaluate a solar farm and quickly identify problem areas. In the course of a single day, a drone crew can fly and produce useful data. The thermal sensor can quickly reveal problems such as panel malfunctions, bird soilings, and overhanging tree branches. And because the process is faster and easier than the manual method, inspections can be performed more often.
Drone electrical substation inspections
Electrical substations are another critical infrastructure asset that requires regular inspection. Typically, workers have to climb around high-voltage equipment with handheld scanners. With an ANAFI, a thermal camera in the air can quickly provide insight into the status and wear of particular components. Additionally, overlaying infrared data on 3D models can help identify electrical or mechanical malfunctions.
“Using drone-based thermal imaging, a pilot can now quickly create a digital twin of that asset that allows the owners to conduct a trend analysis of the production and operation of that substation,” said Brett.
Overall, regular inspections can increase the lifetime of the substation. And by using drones, crews can avoid unnecessary downtime.
Drone power line inspections
Brett believes drones are very well-suited for power line inspections, similar to the way they provide insights on substations. However, regulatory barriers are holding back widespread drone use for transmission and distribution line inspections. Today, drones are not permitted to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) without a waiver from the FAA.
Still, drones can lend a helping hand today while preparing for the breakthrough use cases of tomorrow. Electrical utilities and energy companies are using drones to inspect bird nests, identify mechanical and assembly failures, and look at production output anomalies.
“Utility companies can now supplement their expensive and less accurate helicopter or fixed-wing operations with a drone to get closer to the target, and therefore have more confidence in the anomaly that they are seeing,” Brett said.
What are best practices for using drone thermal imaging for infrastructure inspections?
In the webinar, Brett offered some best practices for optimizing infrared drone data such as the ANAFI Thermal offers. Here are just a few of his pro tips:
- Set proper emissivity settings (generally, higher emissivity = more reliable data)
- Use a dual payload (optical sensor + thermal sensor)
- Consider environmental factors: humidity, wind, air temperature, time of day
- Optimize hardware for best results
- Account for reflections and reflective apparent temperature
- Ensure appropriate target temperature range
Brett also recommended considering three flight parameters you can’t fix in post-production: focus, range, and distance. If any of these factors aren’t properly set, your data may not turn out very useful. He also explained how to use FLIR’s color palettes for displaying thermal data, the best times of day to fly each use case, and other pro tips.
The power of FLIR in Parrot’s ANAFI Thermal and ANAFI USA
We took a closer look at Parrot’s new ANAFI USA drone, which packs a FLIR Boson 320 thermal sensor along with two 21-megapixel optical cameras offering up to 32x zoom. The ANAFI USA provides the same high-end security, durability and imaging capabilities as Parrot’s Short-Range Reconnaissance drone designed for the U.S. Army.
Parrot also offers the ANAFI Thermal, which pairs a single 21-megapixel optical camera with a FLIR Lepton 3.5 radiometric sensor. Skyward offers Parrot’s ANAFI line today — for more information, visit Skyward’s ANAFI USA page.
For more great tips on thermal imaging, watch Skyward’s on-demand webinar, Parrot, FLIR, & Skyward: Transforming Infrastructure Inspection with Advanced Drone Technology.