Fourth Industrial Revolution

How can drones be used in industry?

Mary-Ann Russon
Technology Reporter, International Business Times UK
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This post first appeared on GE LookAhead.

Drones, or rather unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are gaining popularity as tools for aerial photography, but the technology also offers many other benefits (still being explored) to a wide range of industries.

In the mining industry, for instance, drones have completely transformed the way rock stockpiles are measured. Rather than conducting surveys by having humans walk around piles with a GPS, drones are now used to fly over the area, taking a multitude of photographs that are then stitched together in the cloud to form a 3D model of the site. The time gained can be substantial, says Paul Doersch, founder and CEO of Kespry, a US drone company. He cites figures of 20 minutes for a drone survey vs a week for traditional methods.

Drones are also preventing costly delays on building sites by collecting data and sharing them with the cloud for all subcontractors to view at any moment—useful for improving communication and even for locating building supplies that have been delivered to the wrong part of the site.

The ability of drones to monitor progress while operations are ongoing is of particular interest in industries like rail or energy, where revenue-generating activities often need to be put on hold for inspection by humans to occur safely. GE, for instance, has been piloting the use of drones for the inspection of power lines. The projects are done in partnership with Airware, a drone company that received investment from GE Ventures last year.

The financial gains can be substantial. Cyberhawk’s commercial director, Philip Buchan, notes that one of its Nigerian oil clients reported $9m worth of cost savings by using drones to inspect five flare stacks while the stacks were live. Similarly, drones have been able to inspect wind turbines four times faster than rope-access technicians, who use traditional abseiling techniques to access wind turbine blades.

The benefits are not just financial, however. “The things we inspect are either tall, difficult to access or they’re live, like flares with the flame coming out at the top or an electricity line,” says Mr Buchan. “We have huge safety benefits by not having to put people to work at height or close to live equipment. It’s one of the huge drivers of the technology.”

And then there are ocean drones like Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider, which is being used to gather real-time data on currents and the weather that are essential to oil and gas companies, meteorologists, the navy and geologists.

“We’re providing information that you can’t get today because it’s too expensive or there’s bad weather,” said Gary Gysin, CEO of Liquid Robotics. “So whether it’s helping predict weather intensity, the water quality from an oil spill or basic safety information about wave heights and current speed, this is something we do all the time, 24/7, for any market.”

With drones helping to predict weather, improve safety and efficiency in oil and gas, utilities, construction, mining and railways, and save companies significant amounts of money, it’s no wonder that the technology is in high demand. The decision by the FAA this summer to approve more than one thousand commercial applications for drones will only consolidate that trend.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Mary-Ann Russon is Technology Reporter with International Business Times UK

Image: An IRIS+ drone from 3D Robotics, referred to as “Hawkeye” . REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon.

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Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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