Railways, roads, pipelines, power lines – all these elements of critical utilities and infrastructure, and many more, need to be maintained to keep things running smoothly and avoid potential catastrophe. Cracks, corrosion, wear and tear and vegetation encroachment are just a few of the issues that companies need to keep on top of to minimise downtime and accidents and maximise profitability.
Traditional methods of inspection, even those involving helicopters and manned aircraft that can access hard-to-reach areas, have their downsides, many of which can be solved by the use of drones.
The unmanned aerial advantage
Perhaps the most important factor that drones bring to the table for utilities and infrastructure inspection is enhanced safety. The costs of catastrophic accidents are not only human – settlements, increases in insurance premiums, and loss of reputation could all be disastrous for a utility company.
Drones can help cut costs across the board, with the average cost of operation far undercutting helicopters and manned aircraft. In addition to reducing required manpower, aerial inspection also often does away with the need to shut operations down, and this is especially vital for oil and gas where a day’s downtime can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Data collection via unmanned aircraft far outclasses what is possible with manual methods. Drones can get closer to towers, power lines, and other structures than manned aircraft can, allowing them to capture more precise data and higher-resolution details.
The gateway to seamless BVLOS inspection
Drones have already entered widespread use and changed the face of the inspection industry, improving operations by leaps and bounds. The next horizon is to massively increase profitability by moving from small numbers of pilot-based drone operations to entire fleets of autonomous UAVs that can operate with unlimited range, with the ability to easily scale up your business as the market demands. But is there something that stops the industry from taking it to the next level?
Many countries and jurisdictions currently restrict drone operations to visual line-of-sight (VLOS), meaning that the aircraft can travel at most 500 meters from the pilot under standard aviation regulations. Infrastructure and utilities can span vast distances – pipelines can stretch across entire countries, and the United States contains millions of miles of power lines. Another rapidly expanding field within the inspection industry is solar farms, which are only set to increase in size as the demand for renewable energy climbs all around the world.
BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights make the inspection of such colossal distances and areas economically feasible, as drones can travel further in one flight, doing away with the need to constantly relocate the inspection team and reducing downtime for the drone. The amount of data that can be collected in one day is significantly increased, and so is efficiency as a result.
BVLOS drone operations are currently incredibly difficult to gain authorization for – the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has to date granted only a tiny percentage of the thousands of requests it has received. So if you are aiming to push the state of the art with BVLOS inspection operations, what can you do to maximize your chances of approval, easing the route to certification and thus minimizing your time to market?
One of the key challenges to overcome when creating a BVLOS platform that will satisfy regulators is connectivity. Aviation bodies such as the FAA need assurance that your solution includes a failsafe communications system, especially if you are operating in populated areas, or busy roads and industrial sites.
Infrastructure that spans great distances may pass through a variety of communications environments and networks, and not all areas will offer the same communications options. Without a system that can overcome this challenge, your ability to operate BVLOS will be limited, and so too will your chances of being certified.
Elsight’s Halo platform is a highly flexible drone communications solution that takes advantage of all available cellular and RF networks, creating a secure communications tunnel by utilizing multiple links simultaneously and seamlessly switching to the most suitable options in any environment.
Halo delivers a robust solution to the BVLOS challenges of reliable connectivity and failover protection, and provides a key piece of the puzzle for ensuring your BVLOS inspection solution gets off the ground safely, efficiently, worry-free, and with full compliance.
Written by Ori Koren
VP of business development, Elsight