Airborne IoT: Drone It Yourself

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Airborne IoT: Drone It Yourself

Data from drones is increasingly proving crucial for businesses in areas that include utilities, mining, oil and gas, and agriculture. If a business is using drone data, should it rely on specialist inspection companies or develop its own IoT: drone capabilities?

by Stian Overdahl

With some industries now relying on drone data for mapping, inspection and other applications, one question many companies are asking is whether to continue to rely on inspection service providers or carry out drone flights with an in-house team.
Indeed, many companies are turning to companies specializing in carrying out inspections with drones to act as consultants and help them understand the benefits and the costs of the technology. Cyberhawk Innovations is a UK-based drone inspections company that specializes in oil and gas industry applications, with a client list that includes BP, Statoil, and Saudi Aramco. Around 20 months ago, in response to market demand, it began offering consultancy services to companies that were interested in bringing their drone operations in-house, says Jenny Adams, sales and marketing manager at Cyberhawk.

Airborne IoT: Drone It Yourself - Infobox Lofty Insights

Line of sight

While there’s a popular fascination with the latest flying machines, when it comes to commercial applications it’s not the drones themselves that matter but the quality of the data collected, the sophistication of the software used to collate and refine the data, and the ability to extract actionable insights. “The drone is just a tool for data acquisition,” says Thomas Nicholls, the chief marketing officer of Delair, a French manufacturer of fixed-wing drones.

Nicholls, who previously worked at Sigfox, sees drones as an important part of IoT. “Terrestrial IoT tends to be done with small contextual sensors that will detect movement, temperature, rotation in an engine, or something like that. In the world of drones, we focus on what can be seen.”

One area of development is the more advanced merging of data and insight from terrestrial drones, something that is already taking place in some cases, says Nicholls. “Customers are able to combine data, even terrestrial sensor data, that is then combined with digital twins [digital replicas of physical assets] created thanks to drone imagery, and that gives them the full insight,” he explains.

“What will drive development and the speed of developments will be customers realizing they can improve their profit and loss, or generate new revenue, thanks to these new data sources and the type of analysis you can do on them,” Nicholls adds.

Often the jump off point is reached when companies find themselves paying large fees for numerous inspections: at this stage they begin to look at whether carrying out operations in-house will save money, says Adams. One approach is to classify jobs based on complexity and consider carrying out simpler jobs in-house, retaining specialist operators for the more difficult jobs which will require special competencies and permits, such as those that involve flying close to the public or climbing higher than usual, she explains.
Having in-house operations isn’t as simple as just buying a drone. A company will need to hire an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot or train staff to fly the drones and maintain them. It will also need to ensure there is enough work to enable pilots to fly regularly to maintain their skills. This makes the proposition look better for larger companies that will have the necessary volumes of work and can afford to hire pilots.

Airborne IoT: Drone It Yourself - No Easy Sell

No Easy Sell: Drone use in agriculture is less developed in precision agriculture, where data from drones could be used to plan the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

While experts note a general trend towards in-house drone operations, there are pronounced differences between industries. In some cases, the use of drones matches existing business practices – industries that typically rely on subcontractors being more likely to continue to rely on specialist drone service providers, explains Colin Snow, a drone analyst and founder of Skylogic Research. In construction, contractors have traditionally relied on specialist surveying companies that often have drones integrated into their mapping activities. The off-shore oil and gas sector typically relies on external contractors and may continue to rely on drone inspection companies, observes Snow, adding that he is seeing more use of in-house drone operations for on-shore operations.

Airborne IoT: Drone It Yourself - Powerline Inspector

Powerline Inspector: DJI’s Matrice 200 is hardened against electromagnetic interference (EMI) and also features a camera that can look up.

The more acclimatized an industry is to the use of drones, the more likely it is to want to carry out its own operations. The mining industry is a good example. When mines first started using drones, they would rely on surveyors to do their stockpiling measurements and do their terrain models, says Jean-Thomas Célette, managing director of SenseFly, a manufacturer of fixed-wing drones. As practices have matured, mining companies have come to rely on them and started to fly drones themselves. “Once they understood the workflow well, they started integrating that process and running it in-house,” he explains.

Precision Agriculture with IoT: Drone

In contrast, drone use in agriculture is by and large less developed. Thomas Nicholls, the chief marketing officer of Delair, a French manufacturer of fixed-wing drones and cloud-based software solutions, says that the use of drones is widespread in some sectors of agriculture, such as seed research and on large-scale farms, such as rubber or sugar cane plantations, but it is less common in the field of precision agriculture where data from drones could be used to plan the use of fertilizers and pesticides. This is partly due to difficulty: precision agriculture requires calling in a skilled agronomist, while insights may only be applicable to a local area, given the complex interactions between a specific crop and the climate and terrain.

“The amplitude, complexity, and the link between that activity and the core business of the company are some of the main determining factors when choosing whether to do [drone] operations internally or externally,” says Nicholls.

Scale is another factor. Réseau de Transport d’Électricité (RTE), one of the largest electric utility organizations in Europe, has a fleet of around 200 helicopters which it uses for aerial inspection of power lines. While helicopters still have important advantages over drones for large scale inspection of power lines, drones are increasingly being used for smaller inspection projects. RTE now has an internal drone business unit to carry out inspections formerly done by helicopter, and currently they are equipping and training 200 drone pilots all over France, says Nicholls. SNCF, the operator of the French rail network also has a significant drones business unit, called Altmetris, which also operates independently to perform inspections for other companies.

Automation and tech

Improvements in drone technology are the latest developments driving in-house consolidation. DJI Technology, the world’s largest producer of drones, claims to offer enterprise UAVs that are as easy to fly as its hobby drones.

Software companies are also playing an important role in this. Pix4D develops professional photogrammetry and drone mapping software, in addition to its long-established flight path automation software. It also provides tools to correct hobby drone camera images that display rolling shutter artifacts – where fast-moving elements appear distorted or fragmented – to allow them to be used for professional mapping.
A major focus area for the company is to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to extract elements from the mapping data, replacing time-consuming manual processes, says Nikoleta Guetcheva, head of marketing for Pix4D. Simplifying drone operations reduces the cost and the time it takes to train staff, potentially speeding up the shift to in-house operations, she adds.

All this is having a definite influence on attitudes, says Adams at Cyberhawk: “Because drones are easier to fly, it takes less specialist skills in a lot of cases so, for a lot of larger enterprises, that’s what’s opened up their eyes to the fact that they could be doing this internally themselves. Certainly, automation is changing things a lot and will continue to change things.”

While some companies are already offering drones that promise full automation (see Drone-in-a-Box), regulation in many countries remains a major stumbling block for allowing drones to be flown without direct human oversight. Enabling beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations is a key issue for the industry and could prove transformative, especially for fixed-wing drones, by allowing longer flights.

While there’s expectations that future regulations will open up BVLOS to a wider set of customers and use cases, there’s also awareness that the actions of rogue individuals flying drones in restricted areas, such as around airports, has had a damaging effect on the industry, and is resulting in even stricter regulatory controls.

Driving Innovation – IoT: Drone

The growth of in-house drone operations may sound like a threat to third-party inspections companies but those that spoke to Smart Industry see this shift as creating new opportunities. Many drone inspections companies have deep expertise with software and have begun offering products and services to help customers to develop their own data management platforms. As specialists, these companies have deep expertise in their innovation centers that are likely to outpace in-house operations when it comes to developing new techniques and technologies.

ABJ Drones has developed a technique to use thermal technologies to ‘see’ up to 15cm inside wind turbine blades for signs of cracks, delamination, problems with bonding, and the effects of impacts or lightning strikes. Ordinary drones only give a ‘skin deep’ view and manual inspection of blades, with people hanging off the turbines on ropes to tap the blades, are of limited use, says Richard Scriven, ABJ Drone’s chief operations officer. “As most issues with blades tend to start sub-surface, often you don’t see the problem until it’s too late, or until it’s at a magnitude where the cost of repair is significantly increased.”

With a bespoke drone with full payload and proprietary sensor technology already weighing 10.5kg, ABJ is still “ramping up capability significantly due to demand from clients”, according to Scriven. The company has already added other proprietary inspection technologies, including one for solar farms.

Airborne - Drone It Yourself- PIX4D Mapper-thermal-map

Ground Control: Pix4D is a drone software tool that captures thermal or multi spectral images to create 3D maps and models purely from images.

Scriven says the trend towards in-house is creating new opportunities for specialists to act as consultants, ensure compliance with regulations, and keep companies updated on the latest technological advances. “More [drone work] will go in-house but there will always be the need for consultancy and other services.”

Cyberhawk is also developing new techniques, such as performing contact, rather than visual, non-destructive testing (NDT) in hazardous or difficult-to-access spaces. Current applications include working in oil storage tanks, both onshore and on oil tankers, where drones can measure the thickness of tank walls to check for degradation or corrosion. Using drones for maintenance tasks as well as visual inspections is “probably the next phase of where some of the drone service providers will move to,” says Adams.

Also in the oil and gas industry, drones are beginning to be used to carry out inspections under the decks of offshore oil rigs. The platforms are highly difficult areas to fly around in due to factors that include electromagnetic interference and a lack of Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking.

Despite a lot of work moving in-house, Adams believes there will always be demand for highly experienced pilots and inspection engineers. “We have some of the world’s most experienced pilots on our books, and that part of the business is going to be as large as ever if not still growing,” she says.

IoT: Drone information

On their own

Airborne - Drone It Yourself- Infobox 2

One future technology that is already on the market is the fully autonomous drone. There is a handful of companies offering these ‘drone-in-a-box’ solutions, where a customer receives a drone with a housing unit that takes care of charging the drone, running diagnostic tests, and protecting it when it’s not in use.

Percepto is an Israel-based company whose drones are able to fly completely autonomously. By adding geo-fencing and flight path restrictions on a site, the drone can be kept outside of critical areas, says Illy Guber, Percepto’s marketing manager.

One of the main intended uses for the Percepto UAV is security and it can transmit live video, via a secured LTE network, to the manufacturer’s cloud-based software. Flight patrols can be scheduled within defined areas, such as a site’s perimeter, at set time intervals or can be scheduled to run randomly so that potential thieves can’t predict its route. The system can also respond if onsite sensors, such a smart fence or motion detection sensors, are triggered, sending the drone to provide a visual feed of the area, says Guber.

When the drone is not being used for security, it can also be used for operations related tasks such as inspection and monitoring of equipment and infrastructure, with both RGB and thermal cameras onboard. The software suite can also perform change detection and anomaly detection, alerting the control room if there is something different within the field of view, she explains. “We designed the solution to work in critical infrastructure and industrial facilities. Our assumption is that there is some critical infrastructure that has to be protected, and optimized in the way it operates.”
Average flight time is around 40 minutes, while charging takes a similar period. That means a customer with two or three drone and box packages can have a drone in the air at all times during crucial moments. Although the drone-in-a-box hardware is much more expensive than just purchasing a standard commercial drone, the investment can pay for itself because there’s no need to hire or train up pilots. It also has the advantage of being on call 24/7, whereas to achieve the same a piloted drones would require at least three pilots working in successive eight hour shifts every day.

The greatest challenge is not the technology or being able to prove value to customers, but complying with regulations, Guber says. Today Percepto can be found in 10 countries, including South Korea, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Israel, and the US. Most countries require drones to be monitored by a pilot at all times or have stringent processes to apply for waivers. In some cases, it starts with intermediate wavers where they can use the autonomous drones but still need observers in place. “We do fully respect the need for these regulations and we work hand in hand with authorities to ensure that we get the waivers,” she added.

Guber expects that autonomous drones will be in widespread use on appropriate sites when regulations change. “For industrial facilities, I have no doubt that within three years’ time the acceptance and penetration will be completely different from today,” she predicts.

Beware of the toys!

Airborne IoT Drone It Yourself- Infobox 3

As the number of drones around the world grows, so do the related incidents that threaten operational security around major sites and events.
Airports around the world – including in Dublin, Dubai, and London – have experienced shut downs due to drone incursions in their airspaces. Just before Christmas in 2018, Gatwick Airport in the UK was closed due to drone sightings, with around 1,000 flights being cancelled. In July 2018, Greenpeace flew a drone into the side of a nuclear power plant in France, supposedly to show the site’s vulnerability. Bombs attached to consumer drones have been used in warfare by the so-called Islamic State, and an attempt was made in August 2018 to assassinate Venezuela President Maduro.
Enter the burgeoning field of counter-drone technology, which aims to detect rogue drones and bring them down. The systems provide radar detection, optical identification, and countermeasures including radio frequency jamming, GPS spoofing (drones can be set on automated flightpaths, which makes jamming ineffective), or physically damaging a drone’s electronics via an electromagnetic pulse. Other solutions include ‘catcher drones’ that can fire a net at the rogue drone to bring it to the ground in an uncontrolled way – not a good solution if the drone is flying over a busy area such as a sports stadium – while some catcher drones can tow the netted drone to safety.

The effectiveness and range of a detection system varies significantly between locations: detecting and classifying an incoming drone is far easier in an open area, with few structures, than in an urban setting, explains Celia Pelaz, head of Hendsoldt’s spectrum dominance and airborne solutions division. Its Xpeller counter-UAV system has a detection range of up to 4km. Apart from detection, classification is also important and optical systems can show whether a drone appears to be carrying a suspicious package.

Hendsoldt sells its Xpeller system in three main configurations: portable, mainly for military applications; vehicle-mounted; and a permanent, fixed version. Current civilian customers include major international airports, says Pelaz.

Apart from airports, drones are recognized as a threat in other areas, including at major public events, or for attacks on politicians and other VIPs. Drones have also been used to fly contraband into prison. For corporates, sensitive events revealing intellectual property that can be spied on and photographed, such as the testing of new vehicles or for watching what happens on a film set. Even cruise ships have been a target, with well-heeled passengers upset by drones buzzing around the vessel as they come into port. Future events will likely spark new demands for protection; after the Greenpeace incident in France, there was a spike in interest from power station companies, says Pelaz.

Meanwhile Guardion is a modular drone defence system, a cooperation between ESG, Rohde & Schwarz and Diehl Defence. It has been used by police for high-profile events, including the G20 summit in Munich in 2017 and the state visit of President Obama to Germany in June 2016. Protecting VIPs and intellectual property rights are currently the main civilian uses of counter-drone systems in the opinion of Christian Jaeger, head of the counter-drone business unit at ESG.

There are a number of unanswered questions that may be slowing uptake at airports and other big organizations. Regulations in Germany, for example, have yet to catch up to the new reality, and it is unclear exactly what rights airports or other public utilities have when it comes to defending their sites from drone incursions, said Holger Kraft, vice president of corporate security at Munich Airport, speaking at a conference on UAVs in Berlin in February.

The big question about where responsibility lies also has implications regarding who should pay for the systems, says Jaeger. This issue is holding back adoption around the world, not just in the aviation sector, he adds. It’s no idle question – permanent counter-drone systems are typically priced from around €1m, rising to several millions of euros for a larger airport, though smaller, mobile solutions can be far cheaper.

Some see an economic asymmetry in spending more than a million euros to protect against a €100 toy. As for all business security issues, the real calculation has to be to balance the cost of protection with the potential losses of business interruption, says Jaeger. In some cases, the argument is obvious. “Shutting down and airport like Gatwick can costs several million euros a day,” he concludes.

The airport agrees: Gatwick is reported to have spent around £5m on anti-drone equipment since the pre-Christmas incident.

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