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Empowering hazardous industries with Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Author : Richard Hjelmberg, UMS Skeldar

13 June 2023

When it comes to hazardous environments, such as oil and gas infrastructure, petrochemical plants, and mining facilities, safety and operational efficiency are always top priorities. The high costs associated with operating these types of facilities, however, means that it is essential to ensure everything is running smoothly and according to a full and comprehensive risk strategy. But how can Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) be used to overcome current issues facing various highly hazardous envi

Image: UMS Skeldar
Image: UMS Skeldar

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UASs, or drones, are increasingly being used as a cost-effective and safe solution to mitigate risks in environments such as oil and gas infrastructure, petrochemical plants, and mining facilities. These sites are notoriously expensive to maintain, and risk management strategies are essential to ensuring operations remain uninterrupted. Compared to manned aircraft, UASs provide a low-cost, remote solution for applications such as pipeline and powerline inspections for identifying potential hazards. Unlike their fixed-wing manned counterparts, smaller electric quadcopter and rotary-wing VTOL UASs do not require hard operational infrastructure.

UAS can also be used to monitor hazardous areas and alert personnel of any changes in the environment. One example of this is the possibility to estimate the time it will take for vegetation to encroach infrastructure. In short, UASs can be deployed as a versatile and cost-effective tool for managing hazardous environments, helping crews detect infrastructure problems, and to overcome safety challenges in the industry.

Detecting and fixing problems

Detecting and fixing problems is one of the most important steps in maintaining production and operations across many industries, but in highly hazardous industries it can be difficult due to the resources and time required to inspect or monitor an entire infrastructure, network or plant. Traditionally, inspections have been done with teams of personnel, but these inspections often involve high risk situations and long journeys for each team member. In addition, these inspections can be expensive, such as aerial inspections of pipelines using helicopters, which can cost over $3,000 per hour.1

To address these high costs, the hazardous environment industries have begun to turn to UASs as an alternative to manned aviation. UASs provide a solution to the problems of high-risk situations and expensive inspections. Not only are they much more cost-effective than other methods, but they also reduce the risk of injury to personnel by allowing inspections to be completed remotely. UASs also eliminate the need for long journeys, allowing inspections to be done quickly and efficiently.

Furthermore, UASs are equipped with advanced sensors and cameras that allow for more detailed inspections and monitoring of hazardous environments. Examples include visually detecting damage such as cracks, corrosion, or leaks, as well as other anomalies that may not be visible to the naked eye. Light Detection & Ranging (LiDAR) is an example of a sensor type that can also be used to accurately measure the distance between objects. UASs can also be used to create 3D models of the environment, allowing for more accurate inspections thanks to a process known as photogrammetry. The process involves taking overlapping photographs of an object, structure, or space, and converting them into 2D or 3D digital models.

Safety challenges in hazardous industries

From accidents and fires to falls from dangerous heights and hostile locals, hazardous industries are fraught with danger and easily unforeseeable opportunities for disaster. Even more, damages and leaks that occur to critical infrastructure or within plants often go undetected for a long time, exposing the environment to toxic liquids and gases.

To ensure the safety of everyone involved, regular monitoring, inspections, and preventative maintenance are essential. Until recently, the sole option was to deploy personnel to carry out inspection in-person, but with the advent of UAS technology, these industries have the opportunity to eliminate the risks previously facing personnel and drastically reduce costs whilst simultaneously increasing efficiency.

UAS technology has made it possible to inspect and monitor infrastructure and facilities much more quickly, accurately, and safely than ever before. With UASs, companies can access the most difficult-to-reach places and receive real-time data on their equipment and the environment. They can also take pictures and videos of areas they need to inspect, making it easier to identify potential hazards before they become catastrophes.

For example, UASs can be used to detect leaks and corrosion in pipelines, and monitor the health of plants and trees in a given area. UASs can also be used to inspect the exterior of buildings and bridges, ensuring that they are structurally sound and safe for use.

Image: UMS Skeldar
Image: UMS Skeldar

It’s all about the sensors

The importance of a UAS is in its ability to monitor and capture data from its mission. To do this, the sensor suite integrated with the platform is a critical consideration. The choice of sensor depends on the mission being carried out. For example, Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) gimbals provide advanced wide-area situational awareness and a clear high-definition visual picture. The Infrared (IR) element provides the possibility of identifying hot spots across overhead powerlines. Methane is sensitive to Infrared light, allowing for leaks that would otherwise be invisible to RGB cameras to be identified. In addition, specialist Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) cameras can be used to take extended measurements of emission rates. Lastly, EO/IR cameras provide real-time, high-definition video to decision makers for uninterrupted surveillance of equipment, materials and wide areas, both by day and night.

For UAS manufacturers, the overall aim is to be able to carry multiple payloads, therefore providing the ability for users to monitor and assess more than one item or activity at a time.

What will happen in the future?

The potential for UAS technology to revolutionise hazardous industries is undeniable. It offers a promising solution to the long-standing issues of cost, efficiency, and safety.

The versatility of UASs makes them an ideal choice for hazardous industries. Relative to manned aircraft, UASs’ compact size and light weight allow them to access and inspect hard-to-reach areas with ease, while their powerful cameras and sensors can provide valuable insights into the conditions of industrial sites. UASs can also be used to monitor emission levels and radiation levels in order to ensure the safety of workers.

In short, UAS technology has the potential to revolutionize hazardous industries and provide solutions to their longstanding cost, efficiency, and safety issues. With the right investments in UAS technology and the correct strategies, including choice of sensors and equipment, the hazardous industries of today can be the safer, more efficient industries of tomorrow.



About the author:

Richard Hjelmberg is Vice President Business Development for UMS Skeldar, a joint venture between Saab and UMS AERO Group that provides vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial Systems. Richard has over 30 years of business development and sales experience within the aviation industry. He has led numerous major defence and civilian campaign programmes for Saab over the past 15 years and has a long history of working within the field of special mission aircraft such as Maritime Patrol and Surveillance Aircraft including advanced systems and logistics integration. Within UMS SKELDAR, his primary role is to lead and structure major business development campaigns.

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