Four major industries get a new hero as drones get better, faster

Child’s play no longer.
Child’s play no longer.
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Farewell toys. Farewell games. Today’s drones are grown up and ready for work.

In just a few years, engineers have built quadcopters and fixed wing drones fit for industry. These commercial-grade drones—officially known as UAVs—can glide through rugged terrains, capture terabytes of data-rich images, and come equipped with sophisticated sensors to inspect infrastructure including roads, gas pipelines, oil rigs, wind farms, crops, and construction sites.

Their advanced capabilities have made these high-tech hawks the fastest-growing section of the drone market. Gartner estimates that more than 174,000 commercial drones were sold in 2017, a 59% increase over 2016. By 2020, the global revenue yield for commercial drones will soar to $6.6 billion.

Petroleum Patrols

Routine inspection of far-flung rigs, pipelines, and refineries is essential to both bottom lines and consumer well-being, but it’s a daunting task with over 2.5 million miles of pipeline snaking across the US.

“Large scale assets have to constantly be in operation in order to be profitable because downtime can cost millions of dollars per day,” says Chris Leslie, managing director and founder of Airscope Industries, an Australian drone services provider.

To that end, oil and gas companies are using drones to stop leaks before they happen. In tandem with probes and personnel, companies are flying UAVs along pipelines and around refineries, delivering data-rich thermal imagery and three-dimensional models in just a few hours.

On oil rigs, where roughnecks typically dangle from wires to inspect equipment, UAVs can efficiently and safely scrutinize infrastructure, detect hazards, and monitor the health of sea life near drilling platforms.

Goldman Sachs estimates that the use of UAVs in pipeline inspections is worth $41 million globally, while the market for offshore rigs and refineries is projected to reach $1.1 billion.

Wire Watchers

Reliable and well-maintained equipment is also indispensable for utility companies—particularly for solar- and wind-farm equipment.

Speed is a big driver, according to Nuno Marques, CEO of Aeroprotechnik, a Portuguese provider of UAV-based inspections. “We inspected a 988-acre solar-panel facility in a couple of weeks,” he says. “In the past, this would have kept four human technicians busy for nine months.”

Better yet, UAVs can detect equipment failures that elude the human eye. In the solar industry, for instance, Peak Inverse Voltage (PIV)—a situation in which polarization of solar cells degrades performance—cannot be directly observed. But in recent inspections of solar facilities in France, Aeroprotechnik combined thermography data with electrical diagrams to reveal that 30% of panels had costly PIV problems, Marques says.

Among energy companies, a significant drag on employee productivity is an inability to quickly locate asset information, according to Leslie. He says the average worker spends up to three hours a day just looking for information. “The numbers add up to tens of millions of dollars a year of lost productivity,” Leslie says.

Data generated by UAV-based surveillance companies can give employees efficient access to information. That helps explain, in part, why the market for using UAVs for solar farm or wind turbine inspections could be worth $25 million.

Mining Minders 

To help construction companies get the lay of the land, UAVs can quickly survey topography—reading for hazards and checking for inconsistencies in grading.

After breaking ground, UAVs can be used to curb building-related waste by volumetrically measuring materials on hand for more effective use of resources. That’s a big deal, because in the US, building-related waste due to mismanagement of materials costs over $160 billion each year.

As projects are underway, there is often a disconnect between an architect’s flawless digital blueprint and a builder’s real-world outcome. To rectify this costly incongruity, the industry is turning to UAVs that collect 3D aerial photography. This data is compiled into an orthographic array that is accurate to within a few centimeters, enabling architects to compare the finished building to the original design.

Up the supply chain, mining companies are using cost-saving drone technologies to battle steep declines in prices of commodities like coal. UAVs are helping to more efficiently inspect worksites, measure stockpiles, and improve worker safety.

Many mine operators use drones to conduct photographic inspections of its sites. One mining company says drone-based inspections have trimmed costs by $3.8 million at one mine alone.

That company also tapped UAVs to create a safer workplace. The company sends drones above coal mines in Queensland, Australia, to check for people in mining areas before blast and to track fumes afterward. In the US, the company dispatches UAVs to ensure refinery gas flares are in good working order. Unlike visual inspections, these missions can be performed without having to shut down plants.

Crop Coppers

Increasingly, drones are being used to stretch agricultural production by capturing digital images that allow farmers to monitor crops, boost yields, and make the most of water and fertilizer.

In agribusiness, monitoring the health of plants spread across sprawling fields has always been a challenge. Until recently, the most advanced way to monitor crops from above was satellite images—an approach that is both expensive and often inaccurate.

Now drones can be equipped with cameras that snap images to monitor and even assess the health of crops. Using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI, agribusinesses can identify unhealthy or diseased crops at every stage of growth, from seedling to harvest. What’s more, the speed and efficiency of drones allows farmers to survey a crop every month—or every day—to uncover changes in growth and act to save crops before it’s too late.

It Takes More Than Altitude

Businesses will require commercial drones that can reliably and rapidly gather data. That demands a UAV that can be quickly mobilized and, once in the air, deliver the data that businesses need. For its part, Airscope relies on a fleet of Intel Falcon 8+ commercial drones. “What really excites us was the end-to-end workflow of the Falcon 8,” Leslie says. “It allows for targeted acquisition of reliable and accurate data in the field, so that we can provide detailed and timely insights to our clients.”

When selecting the right UAV for their operations, Airscope ran their data capture workflows and methodology through a battery of performance and accuracy tests. For perspective, an average Airscope project comprises of approximately 100,000 photos and 1,000 laser scans (with some of their larger projects being in the millions of images and thousands of laser scans). The imagery data captured by the Airscope team is extremely high resolution, with projects being Terrabytes of data.

While testing several UAVs, one drone captured inaccurate data that resulted in the loss of more than 3,600 images. By comparison, the Falcon 8, on that same capture only lost 11 images, with all 11 being attributed to calibration shots and overwater shots. “Thanks to Intel integrating flight navigation software with the aircraft, our teams can capture data in a way that is extremely scalable and reliable,” Leslie says.

To find out more about commercial drones or to speak to a drone expert, visit www.intel.com/commericaldrones.

This piece was created on behalf of Intel by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.