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Miles and Miles in Search of Perfection

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Miles and Miles in Search of Perfection

  1. 1. 35September/October 2016 THE MODERN WIND TURBINE is an amazing feat of engineer- ing. Some models have blades nearly 130 feet long, sweeping an arc 260 feet in diameter, anchored to a tower more than 200 feet tall. But despite their astounding design and imposing appearance, every now and then, someone has to inspect those blades for cracks. “You can stand on the ground and look up,” using a camera with a telephoto lens, “but the more effective way is to actually go down the blades,” rappelling by ropes, says Aleksandar Vukojevic, manager of emerging technol- ogies at Charlotte, NC-based Duke Energy. After position- ing the turbine blade at a 90-degree angle to the ground, an inspector climbs all over it. This method is both time- consuming and dangerous for human workers. A drone with a high-resolution camera, however, can get the job done in less than 90 minutes. Any job that requires climbing is perfect for a drone, he says. The FAA predicts com- mercial drone sales will grow from 600,000 units a year to more than 2.7 million a year by 2020. Certainly the most sophisticated and expensive of these machines will be put to work by the private sector. That entails a whole new gen- eration of unmanned aircraft, as well as people skilled in handling them.MORE THAN A TOOL “Interest in drones is great,” says Gretchen West, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance and senior advisor at Hogan Lovells. “Companies and in- dividual operators have been very good at learning and fol- lowing the rules. There are a lot of resources out there now to help them know when and where they can fly.” The challenge, she says, is getting businesses to under- stand drones are aircraft, not just another tool. Like a manned airplane or helicop- ter, a commercial drone is sub- ject to federal regulations. The highly anticipated Part 107 regulations for commer- cial drones were released in June, and many in the indus- try were hopeful for signifi- cant changes like the ability to fly beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS). While BVLOS is illegal, Part 107 makes it easier for people to operate drones commercially. The FAA notes that waivers may be filed for certain exemptions to Part 107’s requirements, including BVLOS operations similar to the Section 333 process. These rules went into effect on Aug. 29, and up until then commer- cial drone flying in the U.S. still functioned under the Sec- tion 333 exemption process. Under Part 107, all com- mercial drone pilots must fly small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) that weigh less than 55 pounds, during daylight/civil twilight, within visual line-of-sight, and under 400 feet. They must also pass an FAA aeronautical knowl- edge test (and pass again every two years) to obtain a remote pilot airman certificate. (Read more about Part 107 on Page 11.) BETTER. FASTER. SAFER. Even though current rules and regulations in the U.S. may seem restrictive, privately held companies ― most of MILESANDMILES Infrastructure and utilities inspections are some of the fastest- growing commercial sectors for UAS By David Ibata INSEARCHOFPERFECTION Talkaboutvertigo!ADJIInspire1 shotthisphotoaspartofadetailed inspectionofahydrotowerandits variouscomponentsinCapeBreton, NovaScotia.AEROVISIONCANADA
  2. 2. consultant and chief operating officer of UASolutions Group, which advises companies and helps them obtain certification. “These guys have big ponds of water, and they sledge out of the bottom certain types of sand and ag- gregate,” she says. “Back in the day, you literally had to walk on top of the pile to do a survey. Well, those piles are really unstable, and there are cases where men and women have gotten stuck in them, and it’s killed them. So now it’s illegal to walk the stockpiles to figure out how much mass you have.” Operators have flown manned aircraft, costing hun- dreds of dollars an hour, to measure piles of mined mate- rials. Now, many use drones. “It’s easy and brilliant,” Engh says. “If you’re paying somebody $10,000 to do a stockpile report and now you can get it down to a $1,000 drone and one of the guys you already have doing the report internally, the cost benefit is huge. The potential return on investment is huge.” Crop spraying is another application ― not for large, expansive fields, but over a small area like a vineyard where manned aircraft are not economically feasible. “We currently have a couple of [Section 333] ap- plications going through for a crop sprayer that’s under 55 pounds,” Engh says. “Crop duster guys can spray smaller areas. They can determine the return on investment, when it’s worth it to pull a big airplane out of the hangar, and when it’s better to put a 55-pound unmanned aircraft in the back of a truck and drive down the road.” CONVENIENCE ISN’T ALWAYS BEST AgPixel of Golden, CO, uses both conventional and unmanned aircraft to take aerial images ― infrared, near-infrared, and visible light ― to help farmers evaluate the health of their fields. “We’re finding drones are very effective tools for which have only been using drones for 12 to 18 months ― have identified hundreds of possible applications for drone tech. Whether scaling a rail- road bridge to look for defects, scrambling over piles of rock to measure their volume, or venturing into storm-devas- tated neighborhoods to locate downed power lines, most anything that puts a human in harm’s way can be performed by a UAS. Duke Energy has a 333 exemption for drone use in the utilities sector and deploys fixed-wing drones to monitor solar farms. Malfunctioning solar panels emit excess heat, so the company relies on drone-mounted infrared cam- eras to spot faulty panels. A single solar farm can have as many as 100,000 pan- els, according to Duke Energy Communications Manager Randy Wheeless. “Right now, you have to go on foot, testing each panel, and that takes time,” he explains. Vukojevic talks of using drones to inspect power-plant smoke stacks up to 400 feet tall. “If you’re looking for hairline cracks in the concrete, sometimes you can do it with a crane. But a lot of times, it’s simply inaccessible.” Another electrical utility business, the Atlanta-based Southern Company, flies its drones indoors ― inside large rooms at generation plants housing boilers and other sys- tems that carry steam for the power conversion process. “We fly the more low-end consumer [multirotor] aircraft ... with prop guards, and you can actually bump the sides of boiler tubes when we’re doing visual inspections,” says Dexter Lewis, senior research engineer for the utility’s UAS. Lewis hopes to use UAS to patrol Southern Companies’ far-flung assets: more than 27,000 miles of transmission lines, 100,000 miles of distribu- tion lines, and 3,000 substa- tions across four southern states. Currently, the company flies manned, fixed-wing aircraft to patrol transmission lines four times a year and he- licopters for complete inspec- tions once every six years. “We can dream a little bit and think maybe a couple of years down the road, where we have beyond visual line-of- sight exemptions or approv- als. Our assets have known GIS (geographic information system) information. We have GPS tags,” says Lewis. “That lines up really well with a flight plan. If you can dispatch a UAV to where you know your assets are, in real time, you can monitor information that’s coming back. You can set that aircraft on an auto- matic flight plan.” In the immediate aftermath of a storm, a drone released for preprogrammed cross- country flight could rapidly cover territory inaccessible and dangerous to crews on the ground. Visual recognition algorithms in the aircraft’s camera software could quickly identify downed power poles and lines. Airplanes fly fast and high, and helicopters can only go so low. So most jobs, like check- ing for broken insulators or damaged conductors, require employees on the ground or in a bucket truck. Lewis calls those jobs the obvious, low- hanging fruit. “Whenever you need to do a local inspection ― lo- cal being kind of within your line-of-sight ― of any type of vertical infrastructure (like a pole or chimney), you can quickly deploy an unmanned aircraft and probably get bet- ter inspection data than from a traditional method, except for climbing,” he says. In the oil and gas indus- try, drones often inspect flare stacks ― tall vertical pipes, the highest points of oil refineries and offshore drilling platforms that are used to burn off vola- tile gases. They, too, typically require sending inspectors up in a bucket or ladder truck. This process can take several days, says Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned and adviser to the oil and gas industry. But a drone can drastically reduce that inspec- tion time to about 30 minutes. “Drones help make legacy inspection processes better, faster, and safer,” Gibbens says. They also help reduce personal exposure, she ex- plains, removing people from harm’s way ― think danger- ous heights or other hazard- ous environments. RETURN ON DRONE Mention coal mines and the lyrics to a Merle Travis song may come to mind: “Where the rain never falls, and the sun never shines / It’s dark as a dungeon, way down in the mine.” But mining is brighter thanks to drones. Those in any type of ag- gregate industry ― coal, dirt, sand, rock ― are looking to drones, especially mine opera- tors, says Christina Engh, UAS “DRONESHELPMAKELEGACYINSPECTION PROCESSESBETTER,FASTER,ANDSAFER” This shot of a refinery in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was taken to give management an overall view of the refinery’s grounds. Commercial inspections, surveying, mapping, and 3D modeling are becoming more common jobs for unmanned aerial vehicles. AEROVISION CANADA
  3. 3. “DULL,DIRTY,ANDDANGEROUS—THAT’SWHEN YOUSENDINUNMANNEDAIRCRAFT” INTENDEDUSE 39September/October 2016 But the big payoff for railroads will come when they can fly drones beyond a pilot’s sight limitation, as the military has been doing for years. For the nearly two centuries of railroad history, the thankless job of patrolling miles of track has fallen to the track inspector. The Federal Railroad Administration says that track inspectors walk up to 10 miles a day on uneven surfaces, are in constant danger of approaching trains, get close to hazardous materials at acci- dent scenes, and are exposed to extreme temperatures and precipitation, not to mention the potential for disagreeable insects, toxic vegetation, or poisonous snakes. “Dull, dirty, and danger- ous — that’s when you send in unmanned aircraft,” says Engh. And the track inspec- tor’s job is at least two of those three, on a good day. One of the first BVLOS commercial demonstrations occurred in September 2013, when the FAA’s Alaska Region worked with Insitu on ScanEagle flights over the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle. The energy com- pany ConocoPhillips tested drones for conducting the marine mammal and ice sur- veys that are required prior to sea-floor drilling. In one of the most recent tests, an Xcel Energy drone flew beyond visual line-of- sight this past February to survey a transmission line near Amarillo, TX. Foreign affiliates of U.S. UAS operators are already flying BVLOS operations. Insitu announced in May that after 18 months of trials, the Queensland Gas Company, an Australia-based Shell subsid- iary, will use its ScanEagle to inspect pipelines, gas wells, and processing facilities. The drone will be in the air up to eight hours a day. WAITING GAME While drone tech has a lot to offer in terms of use for inspections, allowing UAS to reach their maximum poten- tial rests heavily upon future government regulations. West believes future legis- lation will be strict, but that doesn’t necessarily mean lim- iting. While she says the FAA is unlikely to approve flying unmanned aircraft at night, over people, or BVLOS any time soon, the government and its partners are research- ing those areas. “The FAA has been much more forward-thinking just in the last year … allow- ing broader operations on a one-off basis, which we hope will be a precedent for future rules,” she says. Lewis believes starting slow is a smart move. “We’ll crawl, walk, and then run,” says Lewis. “Just from a conservative mindset, that’s the best way to ap- proach [future UAS regula- tions]. You could argue that with today’s regulatory process, with the 333 exemp- tions and the conditions and limitations tied to those, we’re crawling along.” But when the FAA finally allows widespread BVLOS operations, he says, “then I think we’ll be running.” many applications, but not always the best or most cost effective,” says Kevin Price, AgPixel’s executive vice presi- dent of research and product development. “In fact, they can be the most expensive way of collecting imagery over agricultural land.” A multirotor drone tasked with capturing map-quality images ― such detail is neces- sary for programming field machinery ― can cover about 50 acres a day, Price explains. A fixed-wing drone can do 1,000 acres “on a good day, at 400 feet, the highest altitude you’re allowed to fly.” A fixed- winged manned aircraft like a single-engine Cessna can fly higher and process about 20,000 acres a day. Section 333 exemptions and Part 107 require two people to fly a drone commercially, a pilot and an observer. An airplane requires only one per- son, the pilot; it also can carry a higher-resolution camera. “A good, used Cessna can be bought for almost as much as drones are selling for now, $20,000 to $30,000,” Price says. But the buck doesn’t stop there. “People also forget that if they buy a drone, they still have to buy a truck to haul the equipment, and that could cost as much as a used Cessna, too,” he says. “I’m not bad- mouthing drones. We use them, and we use them very effectively. But sometimes people get into drones and are very disappointed they can’t fly enough acres commercially to make it worth their time.” Drones make sense for small farms and high-value crops like produce, Price explains, but not for massive acres of plants like wheat or corn. “You’re pounding a square peg into a round hole if you’re trying to use them for 1,500 acres of winter wheat,” he says. BVLOS: ALL ABOARD! Like electrical utilities and pipelines, railroads are a natural application for drones, given the long, linear nature of their operations. In 2015, Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company based in Bingen, WA, worked with the BNSF Railway on one of the most ambitious tests of BV- LOS applications to date. The company participated in the FAA Pathfinder program to help the government agency develop future commercial UAS regulations. An Insitu-built ScanEagle, a catapult-launched fixed-wing drone with an endurance of more than 24 hours, took off from Vaughn, NM, to inspect 140 miles of track between the towns of Mountainair and Tolar. During 14 hours of flight time, the aircraft looked for washouts, bridge damage, and other problems, transmit- ting information in real time to a team on the ground. “The exercise demonstrated how, in addition to a rail- way company’s traditional methods of track monitoring, drones can be a powerful force multiplier and further enhance railway safety and infrastruc- ture operation,” Insitu says on its website, adding that UAS “keep employees out of harm’s way and harsh condi- tions.” BNSF Railway and other railroads either did not respond to or declined inter- view requests. Even when subject to line- of-sight limitations, railroads are putting drones to work. According to the Association of American Railroads, when record floods hit Texas and Oklahoma in 2015, BNSF flew drones with high-definition video cameras to inspect areas difficult to access from the ground. The Union Pacific Railroad has used drones for close- up visual work like bridge inspections, which previ- ously required crews in bucket trucks or physically climbing the structures. AN ANALYSIS of 2014- 2015 Section 333 exemptions shows that construction, utilities/ energy/infrastructure, and agriculture each make up about 11% of intended operations. Source: Center for the Study of the Drone, Bard College Photo/Film Real Estate Construction Infrastructure Agriculture Emergency Services Education Government Contracting Insurance Scientific Conservation Manufacturer Other More and more, quarries have started using drones to measure stockpiles like this one at Lannon Stone in Sussex, WI. Drones help save time, money, and possibly even lives. TIM KIDWELL

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