In America and overseas, the built environment shows signs of strain. Major bridges have buckled, energy grid outages from severe weather are now common, and dams have failed. It’s the result of several factors: population growth, climate change, and worn out infrastructure systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the U.S. alone needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020 just to bring the country’s support systems to acceptable levels.

Drones play a growing role in finding problems in the systems we rely on for daily life and business. UAS can detect failing structures and equipment in less time and for less cost than traditional methods. Usually, they’re safer, too. 

What kind of infrastructure data can drones gather?

High-resolution photos, up-close videos, thermal imagery, terrain maps, 3D models, cloud points using LiDAR, volumetrics—drones can gather a wide variety of data. Drones equipped with sensors and cameras gather real-time footage or store data for later analysis.

For example, topographical and geological data gathered by drones can generate models that help identify promising oil and gas drill sites, or the optimal layout for a solar utility array. High-res images collected from the air can reveal corrosion on transmission line conductors. Thermal sensors hovering above pipelines can detect leaks. First-person, aerial-view video can scope structures after disasters, when conditions on the ground are too risky for people.

Drone inspections for transportation infrastructure

More than one-third of interstate bridges have been in service for more than 50 years. Well over 55,000 bridges in the United States are now considered structurally deficient, spans that are crossed by vehicles 185 million times a day. The nation’s largest single infrastructure system—our interstate highways—is also past its design life.

Eighty percent of state highway departments now have UAS programs that are helping them keep an eye on infrastructure. They use drones for bridge, pavement, and light-pole inspections, and to gather aerial views of highway construction progress. Drones deliver much better data about what’s going on, without requiring inspectors to climb to heights, go up in a bucket truck, or be in proximity to speeding traffic. One study found drones could detect concrete crack sizes on bridges down to 0.02 inches, even in low-light conditions.

Railway infrastructure is also benefiting from drones. In one example, the time required to collect survey data on busy existing railroad tracks, needed as part of design work for a new line near London, was cut from an estimated three to six months to about two days, with photographs providing 1 to 2 mm accuracy levels.

Drone inspections for energy infrastructure

Some parts of the U.S. electric grid predate the turn of the 20th century, with most transmission and distribution (T&D) lines built in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy. With more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 5.5 million miles of distribution lines and thousands of electric-power generation facilities, it takes a lot of maintenance. And right as the need for higher maintenance is growing, transmission line workers as a group are aging out, with baby boomers retiring and fewer line workers joining.

Further, America has over 2.6 million miles of oil and gas (O&G) pipelines, also susceptible to periodic failures.  Utilities and O&G companies see UAS as part of the solution for surveilling these vast systems so they’re kept in repair, stay in regulatory compliance, and are more resilient. Some examples of how enterprises are leveraging drone data:

  • Underground pipeline leaks can be pinpointed by aerial photography that’s run through drone software to create high-resolution vegetation maps showing plant kill-off zones, a sign of leaks.
  • Utilities map service areas using LiDAR cloud points, then compare such maps after a storm moves through. They use change detection to determine damaged assets.
  • Drones mounted with infrared cameras can produce thermal imagery of pipeline routes; hotspots may point to potential defects in pipeline insulation or leaks invisible to the human eye.
  • Unmanned aerials can zoom in for close-ups of equipment like flare stacks while they are running, instead of the traditional approach: shutting down the system while inspector climbs the stack to examine it.

The list of energy infrastructure inspection uses for drones is long, and will keep expanding as BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights become accepted practice in the energy sector.

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UAS inspections for renewable energy infrastructure

Solar farms using data from UAS have revolutionized how they site their farms. Industry leader Sunpower’s fleet captures geographic information to create 3D models and maps. They integrate these into the company’s software for site planning and energy harvest estimates. Then, they crunch the data to determine which plant layout will generate the most megawatts, by factoring in the angles of the terrain and optimizing the positioning of panels.

Many of the nation’s 6,000-plus utility-scale solar facilities use UAS for inspecting solar arrays. Drones can detect specific panels that have gone offline or are underperforming by just flying over with a thermal sensor.

There are also more than 270,000 wind turbines operating globally, making for an estimated 800,000-plus turbine blades worldwide that are battered by the elements and need regular inspections for wear. Drones provide close-up images of this equipment to field workers who remain safely on the ground.

Drone inspections for water systems

UAVs were a critically important tool during a 2017 scare at the 50+-year-old Oroville Dam. Aerial views helped California Department of Water Resources officials see what was going on in real time and guide responses, including evacuation orders and repairs.  

Indeed, many of the nation’s 90,000+ state, federal, and privately-owned dams are reaching the end of their useful lives. Along with dams, aqueducts, hydroelectric equipment, fish ladders, reservoirs, culverts, canal locks, and treatment plants also need frequent inspection.

Infrared sensors on drones are in use for leak detection, and ground-penetrating radar for this purpose is early stage but promising. Water system managers also use UAS for vegetation management, equipment maintenance, security, environmental monitoring and documentation during dam replacements, and construction management.

More advances on the horizon

UAV remote-sensing and inspection technologies are rapidly evolving. As artificial intelligence goes mainstream, predictive maintenance will become standard operating procedure, making it possible to head off equipment failures. Connected drones will soon make their debut in a 5G world, bringing more capabilities and data within reach.

Start with these five questions to get the right data

So how can you get the right data from a drone infrastructure inspection program? Hone in by asking the right questions. Here are the most important for framing initial conversations within your enterprise.

  1. What area of operations present the biggest potential gains for cutting costs?
  2. Once we’ve started gathering data, how will we analyze it so it’s easily actionable? What integrations do we need with in-house systems? A utility with natural gas pipelines may need drone software to integrate with secure systems that show pipeline locations.
  3. How will we compare baseline data on traditional infrastructure inspection costs and safety with what we achieve using UAS? Digital logging of flight hours, pilot rosters, training certifications, authorizations, aircraft, and projects in one place is invaluable here. These logs provide insights on ROI, transparency, and a record for your legal team, important quality-control aspects of aviation programs.
  4. Should we build the program in house or outsource? Organizations using UAS take several different approaches to data collection and analysis. Almost two-thirds of large enterprises say their companies don’t outsource any aspect of their drone programs, handling their own flights, data processing, and data analysis, while the remainder outsource such services, according to a 2018 survey.
  5. If we decide to build the program in house, what preliminary steps should we take?

Interested in drone infrastructure inspections? Skyward’s consulting team can help you start a new drone program or advise on how to scale. We develop proof of concepts, train teams, and partner on BVLOS waiver applications. We can also set up efficient workflows, handle regulatory logistics, and make sure you maximize ROI. Get a free consultation.

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