May 24, 2022 | Technology

Drones for safe infrastructure inspections

Drones are being used by a broad array of industries to monitor and inspect infrastructures such as bridges, highways, oil and gas pipelines, transmission lines, and more in a safer and faster manner.

There’s no getting around it: infrastructure inspection is a necessary risk that can’t be avoided. Sending people into towers or on rooftops is hazardous, and is the leading cause of mortality among construction workers. Helicopters can be a solution to inspect a pipeline or transmission line, but they also carry some risk and a related higher cost. Companies have been experimenting with unmanned aerial systems (drones) for the past few years in order to improve worker safety, among other things. For starters, drones allow humans to work at heights less frequently, and the risks associated with helicopters are generally eliminated entirely. Drones can assist in the identification of structural flaws more rapidly than earlier technologies.

The data speaks for itself, drone inspection is currently a dominant application in energy-utilities sector (83%), industrial plants and real estate (67%) and also takes up relevant stakes in mining, oil and gas, transportation and warehousing sectors1. As the market is estimated to continue its growth in upcoming years, we can expect an increasing number of drones used for inspections.

power lines

Workforce safety is supported by drones

Inspectors face more than only the dangers of working at altitude. They may also be exposed to harmful chemicals or emissions, heat and fire risks, as well as moving machinery, high-speed traffic, or high-voltage equipment. When an asset is not operational, the hazard increase. Drones can be used to survey constructions from the ground and at a safe distance. Drones will be used to inspect gas pipelines and power lines by field employees. Drones are highly beneficial in the aftermath of disasters, when damaged infrastructure systems need to be examined quickly yet the situation is still risky.

The University of Delaware based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identified the most dangerous jobs based on injury and death rate, – a significant number of high-risk jobs were related to work at height, transportation, infrastructure and machinery inspection and maintenance2. In the list of most dangerous jobs such as power linemen, landscaping supervisors, farmers, roofers and firefighting supervisors, drones are applicable to reduce or eliminate a large extent of the risks.

People at Solar farm

Here are some of the types of infrastructure inspections that are becoming significantly safer as a result of the use of drones:

  • Identifying vegetation encroachment and wildfire fuels buildup, leaning power poles, sagging wires, caught metallic balloons, equipment wear, vandalism, and more on transmission and distribution (T&D) lines;
  • Leak detection and equipment corrosion in oil and natural gas pipelines;
  • Look for indicators of wear and irregularities in vertical structures such as nuclear cooling towers, storage tanks, smokestacks, and piers;
  • Dams and levees, in order to detect structural flaws and repairs, as well as to ensure environmental compliance and avoid stop work claims during replacement work;
  • Cracks, wear, and general conditions of bridges, underpasses, overpasses, and culverts;
  • Assessing pavement cracking and repair work needed on roads and highways;
  • Leak detection, environmental monitoring, vegetation management, equipment maintenance, and security, municipal water systems—aqueducts, fish ladders on older dams, reservoirs;
  • Railways, to inspect for wear, vegetation, rocks, and track security, as well as bridges, poles, and yards;
  • Solar facilities at a utility-scale, for locating under-performing arrays and repairing them;
  • Crack detection and other maintenance requirements for onshore and offshore wind turbines;
  • All of the above are subject to emergency, post-weather-event, and post-disaster damage assessments.

Reliability and public safety are both improved by drones

Drones are becoming more crucial in enhancing the reliability of the water, electricity, and transportation networks on which we all rely. Drone use allows infrastructure managers to examine infrastructure conditions more regularly and collect higher quality data, resulting in timelier risk detection and prompt reaction for maintenance.

Benefits of risk management for companies and the government

Drones can also assist public agencies, utilities, and businesses that control or manage infrastructure systems in mitigating risk. Unmanned aerial systems help to reduce injuries and fatalities, as well to reduce or eliminate downtime related to these risks. As the general working safety improves, medical insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, and liability insurance costs can all be decreased. Even greater risk-reduction benefits come from enhanced data reporting and compliance with environmental standards.



Drone Technology in the Future

Drones will only improve in the future, providing new services while becoming more accessible, safer and easier to use. Drones could have an impact on the building business by introducing new X-ray technology that allows them to create high-resolution 3D maps of premises via Wi-Fi. This new function could aid in the monitoring of potentially hazardous structures that may endanger workers or the general public. It can also be used to make models of regions hidden behind walls or other barriers to provide more information to employees to prevent risks.

More technology advancements for drones will benefit users and workers, allowing them to execute their jobs more safely and efficiently. Drones will increase safety as more people learn about them and to utilize them. With the increasing accessibility of unmanned vehicles, additional criteria and regulatory frameworks will be developed and implemented to govern the safe usage of drones.

 1Drone Industry Insights: Applied drone-based methods per industry | 2 University of Delaware: 25 Most Dangerous Jobs