service provider

The use of unmanned aerial systems in managing aging plants

Looking at how the use of drones can help decision makers decide on safety and maintenance issues within industrial plants. Their use requires not only new application techniques but also a different approach with regard to work procedures and naturally a detailed understanding of drone technology and how it works- its limitations and best uses.
Looking at how the use of drones can help decision makers decide on safety and maintenance issues within industrial plants. Their use requires not only new application techniques but also a different approach with regard to work procedures and naturally a detailed understanding of drone technology and how it works- its limitations and best uses.

Aaron Cook, Unmanned Systems COE Manager, AETOS – Member of the Mistras Group, USA

Since the dawn of man, we have looked to the sky and wondered what it would be like to fly with the birds. Then, it was more about the thrill of the flight. Lately it has been more about transportation and civilian progress. Today we live in a world where
flying machines do not have a human on board allowing for unimaginable design and uses.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Drones are doing everything from delivering medicine in Developing countries, providing disaster relief as well as better, safer, and more cost effective infrastructure inspections. UAS’s are benefiting from advancements from cell phones, automotive, gaming and GPS technologies. These developments are running at a mind boggling rate, which create a huge spectrum of operator and equipment capabilities. UAS lifecycles are running at between six and eighteen months, half that of cell phones.

If you were able to see something more often, how would your decisions change? Could you run longer between turnarounds? Would your asset be able to stay in service a few extra years? Would your plant run more safely? To take advantage of the technology, plant leadership and personnel have to think about doing work differently. To do that we have to understand the technology, how it works, its limitations and best applications.

Applications for the use of drones

Let’s start with applications. It is safe to say that anything above your head is an
option for UAS inspections. There are three pillars to consider when looking at using UAS, safety, cost/time, and a need for better data. Usually improved safety is a given because you don’t have to put a human at risk. Reduced cost and time usually happens through less scaff olding and rope access, although it may not always be obvious. An example is pre-turn around preparation. While you many have never used a UAS for turnarounds and may consider it an additional cost, if it saves 2–3 days on a turn-around, overall it is a savings. Last, UAS can provide information that was never before obtainable by accessibility or prospective. Here is a list of applications common today:

• Flares - Stacks
• Tanks (fl oating and fi xed roof)
• Pipe racks
• Columns
• Construction progress
• Volumetric surveys (secondary tank containment, aggregate piles)
• Site mapping (high resolution Google Earth)
• Emergency Services
• Internal flying for HRSG/Boilers and tanks

These applications can be found at nearly every plant with ranges in complexity and levels of post-processing. Each one has the potential for significant saving and increased safety.

Limitations when using drones

Limitations are mostly concentrated with the aircraft capabilities and sensors. Aircraft limitations are flight time, wind speed, camera resolution, zoom capability and safety features. The one major limitation in the plant environment are Electrically Classified areas or Intrinsically Safe zones (IS). This is managed by using good sensor with high zoom that can keep the aircraft out of the IS areas while doing the inspection. You should be able to use a UAS that can fly 60+ feet away from the object and still get resolution as if you were standing an arm’s length away.

Here is a list of main considerations:

• Aircraft
• Payload
• Data Management
• Regulations
• Operators Experience

Not all UAS are built the same. Like anything, there are personal/recreational grade and there are commercial grade equipment. A good example is a Cessna 172 and a Boeing airliner. Both are aircraft but two very different capabilities. The same thing goes for the operator, a pilot with a Private License is not at the same capability as one with a Commercial License. Make sure you ask about the aircraft to be flown and the experience of the operator. While the aircraft is important to get the sensor to the right location, the sensor is really what brings the value. It is the tool getting you the data from which to make decisions. Many of the sensors carried for inspections today are IR and visual cameras. There are many things to consider with the sensor like weight, zoom, mega pixels, and gimbal to manage targeting and vibration. You also have to think about management of the sensor while in flight. The functionality to switch from video to photos, manage lighting, and adjust zoom on the fly all help gather the right data, the first time.

There are various regulations throughout the world when it comes to using UAS. Generally speaking most Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) have developed a process for using the technology. That said, you do have to get approval for commercial operations. CAA’s are mostly interested in ensuring safe operations. They want to know you have a comprehensive operations manual, licensed operators and registered aircraft. Airspace approvals can be a challenge due to the fact that most plants are located in proximity to major airports. While this is not impossible it does take additional coordination with Air Traffic control to ensure safe operations and compliance.

With cameras taking photos of 8-10 Mb and 4k video, data management is something to consider. The value of the data is that it can be used in a variety of ways. It could be an owner visual with raw images, in a report form or interactive with video goggles. It be stored by the service provider and accessible through the internet or behind the customer firewall. Usually multiple people use the data to manage the asset so putting it in a place that is shareable is important. As of today there is no standard way to manage it.

Integration into day to day operations is critical to realize the advantages of new technology. It is usually a top down and bottom up approach within organizations. In many cases, corporate initiatives to reduce confined space and elevated work can push this technology forward. People need to know that they are supported to try new things and with a culture of continuous improvement, adoption of UAS can happen quickly. The speed at which this technology is moving it both amazing and daunting. Using a service provider is a great way to not only take advantage of the latest technology but also doing it as safe as possible given that is what they do every day. They can help you navigate regulations, safe work permits and the various options that might exist for the data processing and management.

Share this