The Use of Drones in the Future Facility Maintenance and Inspection Industry
Chris Leightell, Vice President of Sales at Industrial SkyWorks
Drone-based nondestructive testing allows easier, faster and inexpensive identification of flaws and defects on materials. Using location and other controls, the drones can take the same tests from the same point and angle repeatedly.
Drone-based inspection and maintenance provides a wide range of possibilities that take advantage of the mobility of the drone, as well as the nondestructive nature of the tests. These tests can help oil and gas companies identify defects and reduce the rate of failures and unplanned shutdowns. The delicate nature of the oil and gas industry requires close and careful monitoring of its systems, such as pipelines, refineries and more. However, some traditional nondestructive testing (NDT) requires shutting down operations, as well as the repair or replacement of the test area or component.
Benefits of Drone-Based Inspections
Drone-based inspections provide a cost-effective, safe and faster solution for most oil and gas inspection needs and do not require shutting down operations. Due to their simple and flexible nature, drone-based NDT inspections can be used to regularly monitor the integrity of the oil and infrastructure throughout its service life.
Here are five reasons why drone-based inspections will be essential in the facility maintenance and inspection industry of the future.
Wide scope and capabilities
New technologies make it possible to equip drones with a wide variety of sensors that perform different kinds of inspections. A drone provides the mobility that allows an inspection of almost any facility, regardless of its design or location.
Combining a drone with a suitable NDT technology increases the ability to perform a wide variety of inspections without destroying or changing any materials’ physical characteristics. This helps in identifying most surface and subsurface defects, and can be very useful in the oil and gas industry due to its delicate nature.
Some common tests include visual inspections, eddy current inspections, liquid penetrant inspections, ultrasound inspections, thermal imaging, radiography inspections, and more. Each of these produces a set of results that aid in determining if components are still meeting the required standards and regulations.
Reduce inspection time and costs
Drone-based nondestructive testing allows easier, faster and inexpensive identification of flaws and defects on materials. This enables the maintenance department to carry out prompt repairs of replacements before problems occur.
Each of the technologies plays its individual role in reducing the costs and time it takes to perform an inspection. Further, testing without shutting down operations means the company will save time and avoid production losses.
Only a few workers, if any, need to go to the field to carry out the inspections. Additionally, drone-based NDT inspections greatly reduce the need for large transport vehicles and helicopters to reach remote areas. The technologies reduce the transport, as well as insurance costs. And, since the tests take less time, the company spends less on accommodations and allowances.
Drone-based NDT inspections can quickly identify the majority of defects and provide maintenance personnel with enough information to allow them to fix problems and prevent leaks and pipeline damage.
Improve safety and minimize accidents
Drone-based inspections can significantly increase safety, reliability and the efficiency of the oil and gas infrastructure. In particular, they help to improve on-site safety for workers by avoiding accidents and injuries associated with traditional destructive testing.
The nondestructive inspections provide a safe and effective way to identify defects that may lead to unsafe conditions, malfunctions, or catastrophic failure. Drone-based inspections prevent accidents associated with test procedures where workers need to access difficult to reach areas and hostile environments. In addition, they minimize the possibility of fires and other accidents that may occur during traditional destructive testing, such as those involving welding or using open flames.
By identifying defects in ample time, drone-based inspections allow maintenance departments to fix problems before they occur. This, in effect, prevents failures that can lead to fires and accidents to workers, as well as people in the community near the affected facility.
Improve facility reliability
Tampering with equipment design during destructive testing affects its reliability and, sometimes, its design life. For example, if cutting a certain part of metal is required, welding back the part results in some changes to the material’s structure. This will either weaken the welded part or the surrounding area, causing parts of the welded area to respond differently to operational stresses. Drone-based NDT inspections, on the other hand, do not interfere with the structures, so they continue retaining their initial design form.
Drone-based NDT inspections also can be used to determine whether structures meet certain environmental and safety requirements. Most of these regular tests can be carried out effortlessly with drones. If the assets meet the accepted levels, the systems can continue operating, otherwise, repairs or replacements are performed to avoid issues that may lead to unplanned shutdowns or disasters.
Comprehensive, accurate and reliable inspection data
By using a drone to access difficult areas, the NDT can then evaluate the structures and provide immediate comprehensive data that otherwise would have taken several days using traditional access methods. Drone inspections in the oil and gas industry can provide reliable and accurate test data on a variety of properties. The inspection process is usually repeatable and can be very useful when analyzing the effectiveness of any repairs.
Using location and other controls, the drones can take the same tests from the same point and angle repeatedly. This helps maintenance personnel produce accurate results and eliminate errors that would arise from taking tests on different locations.
Combining drones with NDT brings in the advantages of drone mobility and flexibility, as well as the nondestructive nature of the inspection. This increases safety, produces cost savings and does not introduce weak points on the materials tested.
However, the use of drones in facility maintenance and inspection will require an understanding of the task the drone is to perform and what kind of information it will look for. Knowing the capabilities, as well as the limitations, of drone NDT inspections is key. It is also critical to understand the relevant standards and specifications in relation to the test. However, when used correctly, a drone-based NDT inspection can provide valuable information while keeping the structures intact.
Chris Leightell is Vice President Sales at Industrial SkyWorks (ISW), a commercial, unmanned aerial system (UAS) and data management solutions company. Chris brings over 20 years of software and technology, operations and business development leadership to his role, with previous experience at Thunderhead Software and TELUS Corp. www.industrialskyworks.com