Drones are the flavor of the month, and with good reason: business, industry, and service providers are all realizing that drones can save them time, money, and downtime due to repairs, outages, and damage from forces both natural and otherwise.
Drones have already proven that they have the right stuff; they were helpful in bringing assistance to people in trouble during the recent major hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico, as well as in other natural disasters. In the aftermath of the storms insurance agents used drones to assess damage and claims without having to dispatch investigative teams.
But the usefulness of drones goes far beyond disaster relief. They can provide companies, especially industrial and infrastructure facilities spread over large areas, with a huge increase in efficiency and safety, and enable them to save some serious money.
Autonomous drones 101
“Autonomous” drones are exactly what the name suggests: drones that fly without operator supervision. Without the need for a pilot, these flying robots carry out scheduled missions, navigating their way without any guidance, equipped with needed technologies to ensure that they do not hit objects or other drones. Just as autonomous cars are set to revolutionize transportation, autonomous drones will revolutionize inspection, facility management, and security, setting the ground for drone operations in populated areas.
While companies like Amazon have ambitious plans to utilize commercial drones to deliver packages, autonomous drones will best serve the industrial and infrastructure sectors. Factories, warehouses, water purification systems, electricity generation plants, oil refineries, remote mines, etc. have already begun using drones as part of their in-house operational teams or through outsourced drone service providers.
Once deployed, autonomous drones are utilized to carry out activities like inspections, security checks, and monitoring of field conditions. These tasks have traditionally been carried out by ground crews and staff that have to drive around facilities, searching out – essentially guessing – where the root of a problem lies. With autonomous drones, site managers benefit from around the clock availability, providing real-time inspection of facilities for leaks, fence breaches, overheating machinery, broken equipment, or anything else that could go wrong. Crews can be alerted and immediately dispatch personnel to the specific location that needs remediation – quickly quashing a problem while it is still small.
Saving lives, the environment and money
The ability to quickly deal with security, equipment, and other issues is perhaps the most important function of autonomous drones. Equipped with, for example, a gas-detecting thermal camera, a drone could fly the route of a gas pipeline within the property of a natural gas facility several times a day, looking for leaks. Using sensors, a drone could allow staff to measure pollution levels, the presence of gasses, or other items that they are required to keep track of, without risking the lives of team members that had previously handled such inspections. With the new drone-based methodology the inspector would have access to a real-time feed and be able to quickly act on issues that need attention. Left to fester, any of these could end up costing a company in time, money, reputation, and even cause harm to personnel or nearby residents.
Free as a bird…with data
In addition to being the front-line of security and safety inspections, autonomous drones also have the advantage of being mobile. While static cameras have a limited range of view, drones can go anywhere, eliminating blind spots – and keeping a constant eye on things from a truly wide-ranging vantage point.
When equipped with the appropriate technology, autonomous drones can go places where no other devices can, collecting data anyplace at any time – and ensuring that even momentary situations can be recorded and analyzed. Drones can even be an important part of the big data future; gathering data on a constant basis, they can provide the raw materials for big data analytics that organizations can use to save money, plan strategically, and operate more efficiently – going far beyond the data collection of stationary IoT devices that companies are increasingly using to operate more efficiently.
Headed in the right direction
From a technology point of view, the autonomous drone revolution is here; from a regulatory perspective, regulators around the globe need to be more flexible in order to enable autonomous drones to fulfill their operational potential. Current regulations don’t allow drones to fly around of their own volition, requiring that each drone be watched by an operator who can maintain a visual line of sight at all times. While waivers have been granted in certain instances, the process of obtaining them are lengthy.
Government programs, both local and national, to test the use of autonomous drones are a good start to increase the level of trust in the technology and signal a positive future for their integration in industrial sites operations. It’s time to give autonomous drones a chance to prove how helpful they can really be.