Every day, workers around the globe perform inspections of hazardous inside spaces. Drones can perform surveys of challenging internal environments more safely and efficiently than a human inspector, now is the time to move towards drones for internal inspection.

Internal inspections involve access to some of the most dangerous environments in industry. Internal inspections are often carried out in inaccessible, confined, poorly-lit, dirty and complex areas.

When we think of drones, we tend to visualise images taken while soaring over rolling fields and hills. But an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designed for the task of working indoors or inside assets can locate flaws in tiny interior spaces using drone-mounted cameras and sensors.

Drones are particularly well-suited to “3 D’s work” - dirty, dangerous and difficult. Internal inspections often are all three. Also, scaffolding, cranes or rope access are no longer needed. Inspection teams are kept safely outside, typically comprising a pilot and a surveyor.

Read this article to find out more about;

  • The types of inspections you can conduct using drones
  • Drone types best suited for different inspections
  • A closer look at the ELIOS 2 Confined Space inspection drone
Access all areas - drones for internal inspection

Because drones can fly, they can go anywhere. Compact drones can fit into small spaces. Obstacle-avoidance technology and collision-tolerant measures ensure that the UAV doesn’t bump, crash and burn into the dangers that lie inside.

A drone can capture overhead or upward shots then zoom in on specific areas for close up images. Drone-mounted thermal sensors can detect heat and turn them into thermal images, heat maps and colour scales. Other sensors which can be mounted include those for spectral imaging and gas.

Drones are realising impressive returns on investment for the oil, mining, gas, electricity and manufacturing in enabling efficient internal inspections. But their applications can extend beyond into any activity that requires and inspection process.

These are just some of the spaces in which these small flying machines are being used to perform inspections:

  • Ventilation chambers and air channels
  • Towers and chimneys
  • Exhaust stacks
  • Void spaces
  • Cooling towers
  • Boilers
  • Tanks
  • Pressure vessels
  • Pipelines
  • Sewers
  • Tunnels and shafts
  • Mines
  • Ballast and cargo tanks in ships
  • Warehouses and racking

Drones can inspect the integrity of cladding, find leaks or cracks, identify signs of rust and corrosion and locate dropped objects or unwanted items to identify causes of blockages.

If you would like to speak one of our inspection specialists please reach out here.

Meet the Flyability Elios 2 - reaching places no ordinary drone can

The Flyability Elios and its new brother, the Flyability Elios 2 are the drones for performing internal inspection of assets and are designed specifically for the task.

The Elios 2 builds on the success of its predecessor to bring enhanced intelligent flight handling and improved data capture.

The Elios 2 can hover in place to spot sub-millimetre cracks. It performs reliably in GPS denied-environments, and operates effectively in dark, dusty and troubled airflows. The Elios 2 can fly beyond line of sight and can access places that no other drone can.

The Elios 2 is caged to provide collision protection and includes a thermal imaging camera and a shockproof payload. Seven vision stability sensors point in all directions to ensure robust flight.

Close up inspection is enabled with a 180-degree tiltable camera pod, and there's a 10K Lumen for enhanced situational awareness and adjustable lighting for dark spaces.

Dustproof lighting allows for navigation in dirty places. The oblique lighting mode on the Elios 2 reveals the texture of surfaces by mimicking the lighting provided by inspectors when they move a flashlight around an object.

Up in smoke - chimney, flare stack and tank inspections

Drones enable chimney and flare stack inspections to be undertaken with virtually no risk and no - or minimal - shutdowns.

The technology that goes into burning off waste gas is simple - it burns off - but the management of chimneys and flare stacks is anything but simple and can be very dangerous. Not to mention have severe financial repercussions.

A small crack can literally transform a stack pipe into a blowtorch, one that has the potential to cost human lives, and millions in damages caused by regulatory breaches.

Chimneys and flare stacks need to be regularly and rigorously inspected, but doing so has traditionally involved sending human inspectors up scaffolding with cable safety restraints in place. The human inspector has to be both inspector and nimble climber/abseiler.

This slow and laborious inspection can only take place after part of the plant has been shut down and the stacks have fully cooled. It can then take days or even weeks to return to normal operations.

Utilising an industrial drone to do the inspections instead can reduce or even eliminate those shutdowns. More importantly, it also keeps workers from being exposed to the serious risks that inspections can bring.

With an industrial drone, flare stack inspections can be easily and quickly accomplished with minimal impact on operations, allowing these inspections to be performed more thoroughly and more often. All in all, this significantly increases the overall safety of this major component of oil, gas and chemical operations.

Visual inspection of chemical, oil and gas storage tanks is also a slow and laborious process that is fraught with the potential for error because areas of tanks susceptible to corrosion and rust often can’t be seen by the human eye.

Drones greatly speed up the process by allowing engineers to perform high-definition inspections without travelling to the site and manoeuvring around these often cumbersomely large assets.

UAVs with multi-sensory capability can also deliver both digital imagery and thermal imagery, allowing engineers and inspectors to identify issues like solar loading and water accumulation in addition to identifying potential damage or weak points.

A pilot can safely navigate a collision-tolerant drone directly to inspect the walls of the tanks when required. With powerful onboard LEDs, the drone inspection of the tanks can be done without the need to install an additional lighting source which needs to be installed on site and erected.

Flying down below - drones for mining inspections

The application of drones in the mining industry is still somewhat in its infancy. But that is accelerating rapidly in terms of size, scale, speed and scope. Drones are ideally suited to mining operations.

Mining is one of the world’s most hazardous industrial occupations. In 2010 there were 159 injuries reported to the HSE from mining accidents in the UK. Of these, there were three fatalities, 43 major injuries and 213 injuries reportable as requiring three days of absence from work or more. In developing countries, the numbers are significantly higher.

Mine operators can use drones to obtain 3D maps of the mine and prevent workers from having to enter hazardous environments. The drone can return imagery which can be used to produce highly detailed maps of underground areas.

Tunnel and shaft inspections can be carried out. A drone can be launched for inspection on pre and post blasts and provide reports on the outcome. A drone can be sent anywhere in a mine to detect gasses, erosion and thermal hazards or water flooding incidents. Drones can also assist in search and rescue operations in mines.

The drone replaces humans who are normally required to visually inspect the raise (a vertical underground excavation used for ventilation and transporting ore and waste matter) - to look for risks like potentially loose rock so that action can be taken to make safe.

Because UAVs fly relatively close to the ground, drone-produced maps - of either existing mines or planned new ones - are produced at a much higher resolution compared to the traditional methods. UAV technology and associated software then creates a surface model that is used to generate a topographic map with precision accuracy down to centimetre levels.

Staying afloat - drones to inspect maritime ballast tanks

Shipping operators need to inspect cargo and ballast tanks regularly for maintenance. Ballast tanks are compartments with a vessel that holds water, which is used as ballast to provide stability for the boat, ship or other floating platform.

Any corrosion, cracks, fractures or welding anomalies must be identified quickly before they can damage the structural integrity of the ship and result in colossal repair bills and lost time.

Traditionally, this inspection is done by sending a team of up to four men inside the confined tank space using scaffolds or rope access. This type of human close-up visual inspection can take from a half day to full day for one tank alone.

Ballast and cargo tank inspections can pose a safety threat to the workers who are required to go inside the tank. Unfortunately, there are regular accidents involving personnel performing inspections of tanks on ships and occasionally with tragic consequences.

Using drones reduces the need for workers to enter the tank. Drone inspections are quicker and more precise than manual inspection. In a typical drone inspection, a professional pilot and surveyor are still required, but the task can be completed in around an hour. This realises significant cost savings.

Images returned along with ultrasound thickness measurements using hyper-spectral imaging can detect rust, cracks or poor coating conditions. It will also measure steel thickness and compare this with historical data to determine the development of rust and cracks over time.

It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it - drone inspections of sewers

No one needs reminding that sewers are dark, confined and positively dirty, smelly places. What lies beneath us in the waste water system is rarely pleasant.

Inspection of wastewater infrastructure offers some obvious challenges. Almost all of the system is hidden underground for one thing.

Climate change is taking its toll too with our increasingly volatile weather resulting in major rainfall events and flooding across the globe. Such events can place enormous pressure and stresses on networks. And most cities have an ageing infrastructure. Much of the current sewerage network was installed after the Second World War with a lifespan of 50 to 80 years. Those pipes - often lead pipes - have now reached or are approaching maturity and bring with their age, failures, breaks and the need for increased inspection and replacement.

To inspect sewers, the usual method is to access the system via manholes or dig a hole in the ground and send people inside using small cameras. Sometimes it is simply possible to send human inspectors into damaged sewerage systems when there has been a significant collapse, for example under storm conditions.

Pipes too small for a person to squeeze down are often likely not inspected at all, or if they are required, cumbersome remote inspection tools would be deployed. Not only is this a slow process, it is expensive. Yet maintenance and repair of wastewater systems is imperative for the benefit of local communities and for public health reasons.

The managing authority of the wastewater infrastructure in Barcelona estimate that flying an Elios 2 to perform inspections of sewers is twice as efficient as human inspectors and forty percent less expensive. That economy rises significantly the deeper the sewer being inspected and the complexity of the operation.

Drones for internal inspection - the bottom line

Manufacturers, industry experts and operators have demonstrated the difference that drones for internal inspections can make to the bottom line. Yet moreover, the benefits of the technology are especially apparent in infrastructure projects with high regulatory burdens and high consequences if something goes wrong.

There are a number of considerations to take into account before investing in a drone to perform internal inspections. But the business case to do so is almost always a sound one.

Before you invest in the technology and spend £’s and hours training staff and implementing procedures, discuss your requirements with us. Having helped multiple national and international companies find the best way to put inspection drones to work for their business you’re in good hands.