The US has more than 900,000 bridges. According to regulation, each bridge requires inspection every two years to ensure that there are no cracks, rusting, or other damage. This means that every day, 1,232 bridges need to be inspected. Inspection of such bridges requires a crew of inspection professionals, heavy machinery with lifts, people rappelling from dangerous heights, resulting in each inspection taking a few days.
And this is only to understand if there is a problem! Infrastructure inspection, which can include bridges, pipelines, electrical grids and other facilities, is crucial for structure usage and safety, yet it is expensive, time consuming and dangerous. Fortunately, new professional-grade drone inspection technologies can help alleviate these challenges.
UAVs Solutions are Changing the Status Quo
For these reasons, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are becoming an integral part of infrastructure inspection practice. Today's professional drones are agile, cost-effective and can perform tasks that have proven to be too dangerous for humans to do.
Inspecting tall structures, such as electric towers (typically between 15 to 55 meters tall) and wind turbines (typically 113 meters tall) with UAVs is far more efficient and much safer than sending workers up the soaring and potentially unstable structures.
The added value that drones provide to infrastructure and construction professionals has propelled their growth within the market. According to PwC's Clarity From Above report, the global drone market will reach a value of $127 billion by 2020, of which $45.2 billion will be accredited to infrastructure inspection.
PWC report also found that the number of life threating accidents on an average construction site monitored by drones has been decreased by up to 91%.
Pitfalls of Current Drone Solutions
Despite how far drone technology has come, there are still many challenges facing the industry. Today's professional drones have not reached the level of efficiency required to truly optimize inspection operations.
This is apparent in the short battery life and limited payloads that today’s drones can carry. As far as battery endurance is concerned, the average professional drone can fly for approximately 30 minutes with a minimal payload.
Furthermore, for drones to complete a useful inspection that provides actionable data, they require high-end cameras as well as connectivity hardware, both of which add more weight and strain on battery life. These two significant factors, plus overall drone ease-of-use and weather durability (i.e. in harsh weather conditions) are preventing professional drones from making their full impact on this industry.
Current regulations prevent drone pilots from utilizing Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) capabilities. This means that drones can only be flown as far as the pilot can see them. The main advantage of BVLOS is that a UAV can cover a larger area without the need of observers, or the pilot moving around to keep an eye on the drone. Consequently, if a drone has a lot of ground to cover, requiring Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) operation constricts the efficiency of the drone.
Increasing Market Knowledge Will Increase Adoption
Drones are still a relatively novel technology in the inspection industry. The market awareness of drone solutions and the capabilities and benefits drones offer is still lacking. As such,major companies and businesses have yet to introduce drones into their inspection/surveillance processes, simply because they aren’t aware of the benefits.
Additionally, current drone business models have yet to accommodate companies' needs. OPEX operating businesses want drones-as-a-service that provide valuable data, without the need to operate or maintain the drones themselves.
However, as drones continue making an impact and proving their worth in other industries such as security, and as drone business models strive to meet company needs, widespread adoption will become the new standard in this industry.
To illustrate this, we have to look back no further than this past summer, in which the United States experienced one of the most costly hurricane seasons in history. Drones were used widely to survey damage and to deliver essential goods to remote locations. The jump from surveying damage following a natural disaster to utilizing drones for routine infrastructure inspection is a small one to make, providing the drone solutions with the necessary capabilities are available.
Atlas Dynamics’ Autonomous Drone Solutions
Atlas's premier drone, the Atlas Pro, responds to the needs of this market, as its capabilities answer directly the pitfalls of drones currently being used for inspection.
With a flight time of 55 minutes, a 50 KM (31 mile) range, high weather resistance (IP52), a durable light-weight carbon frame, versatile exchangeable payloads and fully autonomous functionality for day/night BVLOS operation, Atlas’s drone-based solution can handle the flight time and payload requirements for efficient, cost-effective and safe inspection.
Moreover, Atlas has developed a remote charging and docking station, the Atlas Nest, that provides protection and battery charging for the Atlas Pro drone. This enables extended flight capabilities, such as fully autonomous operation in both VLOS and BVLOS situations, allowing for constant drone readiness in remote infrastructure locations.
For example, the Atlas Pro and Nest can perform continuous inspections of a distant cellular tower autonomously, and then report back its detailed surveillance.
Atlas's software will also allow for further drone integration, such as incorporating drones into larger networks of sensors to become additional nodes in more comprehensive systems.
Further, Atlas drones will be able to operate within mesh networks, allowing the drones to communicate with one another and react based on information learned from other drones. This type of system allows professional users to integrate multiple Atlas Pro drones using the Companys proprietary Operating System, granting multi-control over all UAVs a user might be operating from one central station and software platform.
The future of drone inspection
With drone technologies consistently improving, our effective use of them will only increase. Extended autonomous functionality will be a staple in the professional drone world, but it will come in steps.
First, BVLOS functionality will be approved within defined perimeters. By allowing BVLOS operation, drone pilots will be permitted to remotely man their drones in secluded areas from a digital screen. Drones will be able to cover more ground in shorter times, and the entire operation will be overseen from a distance, keeping inspectors out of harm's way.
The next phase of advancement will be smarter drones with the ability to recognize problems themselves through integration with advanced computer vision and machine learning technologies.
Drones will then advance from problem recognition, to problem-solving with these same technology integrations, in addition to drone add-ons such as 3D printers and other technologies. These will allow drones to perform small tasks autonomously, such as cleaning and minor fixes, while major interventions will continue to be handled by inspection professionals.
The onset of drone integration is upon us, and with it comes tremendous possibilities. As solutions such as the Atlas Pro platform begin taking flight to perform these tasks, infrastructure inspection will become significantly safer and more efficient for professionals on the ground.
Guy Cherni, CMO of Atlas Dynamics
Tech entrepreneur and a startup founder with experience in developing products and services that span North America, Asia and Africa.
Guy is involved in social entrepreneurship, community development and technology startups, and currently serves as the CMO of Atlas Dynamics, a leading provider of drone-based solutions for the professional user.