XM2 Drones have taken to the skies to assist in the management of various kinds of infrastructure, and they are here to stay. Not only can they perform hazardous work, but they also make it easier to acquire various data sets, doing so precisely and cost-effectively. Several infrastructure industries can benefit from drone technology more quickly than others: energy, roads, railways and oil & gas. Within these industries, companies operate extensive networks of complex assets, distributed over vast areas. Key drone applications in infrastructure are investment monitoring, maintenance and asset inventory.
Real-time awareness and accuracy have always been challenges on construction sites, drones are able to provide the data required at each phase of the construction process.
During the pre-construction phase, by providing better field data, our drones can significantly improve the speed and quality of the design process. They are able to capture high-resolution videos and images, enabling 3D modelling and providing data about a site’s initial status for investors and property owners before work begins. Data collected by drones can also enable the creation of Digital Terrain Models (DTMs), which ensure better contract valuation.
In the construction phase, drones are perfect for quick surveys of sites and for the precise gathering of data for progress reports. Investors can easily monitor progress by imposing overlays of plans onto photos of the actual state of construction, in addition to identifying discrepancies as small as 1 cm, and simultaneously verifying contractor reports. Furthermore, monitoring of construction sites by UAV helps check whether site borders have been crossed, and confirm that materials are being stored and handled correctly. Information from drones is processed automatically, and investors have swift access to complex data, enabling a fast reaction and an effective analysis of results. UAV technology allows investors to monitor contractor engagement and receive complete, trustworthy documentation that, if necessary, can be used as evidence to settle disputes in court.
On the construction site, contractors can use accurate data gathered by drones to perform precise work such as positioning steel slabs in concrete or measuring the depth of pipelines, preventing costly and dangerous construction errors. Drones further increase safety by performing hazardous work, and by monitoring construction areas for possible sources of risk and accidents.
In the last phase of the construction process, UAVs can be used for final work assessment, environmental impact verification and reporting. The data collected can be further used for maintenance and marketing purposes.
Maintenance is an inherent part of infrastructure management. Today, most such work is performed manually, based on in-person inspections, a slow and costly process that yields incomplete, poor-quality results. In some cases, rope access, scaffolding and elevated platforms are necessary, combined with the need to turn off the installation for the duration of the maintenance. This approach is not only time-consuming but also very costly. Of course, some inspections are required by law to be performed by certified personnel, but in many cases they can be performed by drones. To illustrate: a standard wind turbine inspection currently costs around $1,500 per tower; performing the same inspection using a drone cuts the cost by around 50%. Similar savings can be achieved on inspections of bridges and tunnels, where the costs of in-person inspections are even higher.
Today drones can not only locate defects faster and more thoroughly, but also more cheaply and safely. Due to advances in image processing, companies can analyse data much faster and more accurately. The software currently available for image processing allows extraction of much more valuable information and insights than ever before
Drones can be used in stocktaking and inventory management for infrastructure companies. Performing inventory assessments with UAVs allows companies to cut costs and accelerate the entire process, while providing more detailed information about the assets. It also increases workplace safety, as rotary-wing drones can fly into places that are difficult to reach without risking human lives. The best example may be inventory of telecommunication and broadcasting masts, and the devices installed on them. Ordinary stocktaking is dangerous, time-consuming and labour-intensive; using drones, enhanced by other new technologies such as optical barcodes and radio frequency tags (RFID), makes the process safer and much more efficient. And database integration makes the cataloguing process more detailed and more reliable.
Drones are already changing the way we think about maintenance and monitoring services. We can expect to see drones not only diagnosing problems with crumbling infrastructure, such as cracks in tarmac, bridges and building facades, but also repairing them. In the future, 3D printing technology will be combined with drone technologies to maintain and repair infrastructure. Construction companies will be able to attach 3D printers to drones, to produce on-site replacement parts for damaged elements of infrastructure. The growth of 3D printing is already contributing to the drone sector: In 2014, the first flying 3D printer was created.
Monitoring and repair are not the only drone applications being developed within the infrastructure industry. Start-ups are testing drone technology to perform hazardous tasks at height, such as painting and window cleaning. Ultimately they will be able to perform most work at height, replacing humans in order to reduce the risk of death and injury, as well as increasing efficiency.
We also envisage the development of small autonomous drones for building internal infrastructure (e.g. ventilation systems). Thanks to more advanced capabilities and sensors, they will be able to navigate by themselves and perform tasks inside as well as outside buildings