As drone technology continues to expand, so does the range of solutions on offer to its users. Aerial thermal inspections are one such example where the tech is becoming smaller and increasingly affordable, enabling commercial operators the opportunity to become an aerial thermographer and transform their operations. So, what can you do and what solutions are out there?
If you think of thermal imaging then you’ll most likely head toward the obvious solutions, such as the well-documented search and rescue cases where lives have been saved using drones to find stricken people, whether that’s the police hunting for a missing person or mountain rescue teams guiding stranded climbers to safety.
Firefighters, too, are making great use of drone thermography to cut through the smoke and find people in danger, or perhaps to get an aerial overview of the evolving situation and guide crew members to key hotspots or to navigate through safe zones. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are a vast number of ways that thermography solutions can be used to save time and money – as well as lives.
The Hot Spots
The fundamental factor behind using aerial thermal or infrared imaging is to provide a non-invasive way to detect problems associated with changes in temperature. This is done by capturing infrared radiation, as opposed to light that your CMOS or CCD inspections would identify – to the extent that you could operate in total darkness and it wouldn’t make a difference (although factors such as sunlight can be an influence on your results!).
In construction, using aerial thermal inspections to check buildings for heat loss and insulation issues is a quick and easy way to improve on-site efficiency. Agriculture is almost a thermal imaging industry in itself, with multispectral solutions that can be used to maximise crop yields, identify drainage issues and monitor plant health indexes amongst many other uses (including simply counting animals in a field!). Likewise, energy companies are using thermography solutions to check electricity pylons and power lines, solar farm panels, wind farm turbines and more.
The standout benefits over traditional on-foot methods are numerous. To begin with the time saved in man-hours using drone thermography over sending a team out to check a site using cherry pickers is huge, and in cases such as a solar farm with thousands of panels, those grounded inspections may only cover a selective percentage of panels as a test sample, whereas a drone inspection could cover the entire site in a fraction of the time and offer up far more accurate results. When you’re talking millions of pounds in revenue, any increase in efficiency can be huge.
The non-invasive nature of aerial thermography also reduces risk to those who’d otherwise have to scale those pylons and turbines. Plus, sites would most likely need to be closed down during the inspections, so the savings made simply on keeping everything running while the drone carries out its tasks on a single flight should more than pay for itself.
The Hot Products
So, what do you need to get started? Not a lot is the short answer, but obviously the more serious things become and the more data you wish to collect, then the more you might want to consider a specific drone or adding advanced software solutions and specialist training to the mix (not just for the operational side of things but also to better maximise your data analysis). To begin with, though, you just need to equip a compatible thermal imaging or multispectral camera to your fleet.
Most commercial DJI models, for example, from the Phantom 2 to the latest Inspire or M200 Series, will have thermography solutions at hand. The most recent addition was the Zenmuse XT2 camera, which is effectively two cameras in one. On one side it’s a standard 4K/12MP camera, on the other it’s an advanced radiometric thermal imager that enables the detection and analysis of thermal data. You can easily combine and compare both cameras in real-time to monitor both what the eye can see, and what it can’t.
Much like DJI’s ActiveTrack technology, it can be used to follow hotspots or target certain temperature ranges – and alert you to any discrepancies within your pre-selected parameters. It’s also IP44 approved, which means it’s safe to use in light rain, snow or foggy conditions. After all, it’s not like those search and rescue teams have the luxury of waiting around for a sunny afternoon.
The XT2 was built in collaboration with thermal specialist FLIR, which also has the impressive Duo Pro R available. It comes with many of the same features as the XT2 but in a smaller and more affordable form It is a great camera for those looking to keep things relatively simple. However, the extra money on the XT2 does bring with it a better camera and an increased digital zoom to ensure that extra detail.
Another solution is the MicaSense RedEdge-M. This model is geared more towards thermography inspections for precision agriculture, with its distinctive multispectral design incorporating five bands (blue, green, red, red edge – hence the name – and near infrared). This gives users the opportunity to gather a wide range of data from a single flight, which can be crucial when you’re dealing with as many variables as your typical farmer.
The Heat Is On!
To find the right solution for you, you just need to be clear on your use case and what kind of accuracy you’d require. For example, one key factor is the camera’s thermal sensitivity. A higher sensitivity offering greater contrasts in the image. So if you’re only planning on looking for cows in a field, then a lower sensitivity is needed compared to monitoring a construction site or solar farm.
There are also other variables to consider in terms of accuracy and resolution, just as with your standard RGB cameras. There are plenty of solutions available to suit a range of needs. It’s never been easier to explore the world of thermal imaging.
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