“Let’s first test manual drones in operations, we will search for some kind of automation later”
“I don’t believe in flying automatic drones around our transmission grids, we have some really good pilots you know”
“Automation, mmh… I have heard a lot about it, but I remain skeptical especially concerning safety”
“From what I have heard, we are not there yet for automatic drones…”
These are some of the comments we still hear when speaking to potential customers, and we know their concerns are legitimate. At Sterblue we benefit from 4 years of experience and development in automatic image and data capture, while working with multiple utilities. This helps us understanding where the future of industrial inspections is heading.
3D automated flights around infrastructures is actually the only viable way to scale up drone operations
Manual inspection is stressful
Have you ever tried to fly manually around a 90 meter diameter wind turbine or a 120 meter high transmission tower energized with 400KV? Or even a 100 meter high cooling tower? Well, I can tell you that it is extremely challenging. You better be as good as a pilot as Maverick in Top Gun, otherwise you will probably sweat a lot!
If you are looking to meet high safety standards and take quality pictures, while ensuring the adequate level of productivity of your inspections, you will need some supernatural concentration skills.
Automation welcomes inspections to a world of safety
Drone flights are not immune to human error. Even the best among us have done mistakes. As detailed in this study from the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, human error is still one of the the main causes of drone accidents or incidents. It is too ambitious to expect that someone will remain entirely focused during every single inspection for 8+ hours a day.
Automation does not replace pilots, it helps them instead by reducing their cognitive load during the inspections, enabling a full focus on safety.
Did you know that to inspect a transmission tower manually the pilot has to manage more than 15 different parameters (yaw, roll, focus, shutter speed, gimbal x-axis, gimbal y-axis, avoidance system alerts, its direct environment, etc)? Implementing automation in flights reduces this number to less than 5 parameters. Imagine if when driving your car during an 8 hour trip in a complex environment you just had to worry about… the lights and that’s it!
Automation allies pilots with inspectors (human or artificial intelligence) reaching a new level of quality
As the flight is automated, the drone is able to fly way closer to infrastructures. This significantly increases the resolution and quality of the pictures taken. Automation also brings some standard flight patterns to the inspection, making it structured in terms of order and picture organization.
Industrial inspections are performed to identify defects in the pictures taken of the infrastructures. It would be a shame to travel 5 hours on field to inspect 30 transmission towers and later discover that the pilot did not frame the tower correctly, because he was in a complicated maneuver trying to avoid hitting a building a or a tree with the drone.
Flight automation is the gateway to reach the next level in asset management
Automating the flight makes it standard and reproducible. Thanks to this, 100% of the infrastructure can be covered. No need to check some boxes on a notebook or come back on a tower already inspected because the pilot thinks he may have forgotten an area. Automatic flight puts the drone on rails, nothing can be missed.
This standardization also brings a high level of traceability. In case of a failure, utility companies are able to prove to regulators or insurance companies that the job was done properly.
This highly structured methodology to capture and organize data is a must-have to perform serious inspections. The dedicated artificial intelligence is an expert in detecting faults or equipment, predicting future damages or comparing inspections year after year. Any manual methodology to capture data is doomed to amuse innovation departments without even touching the incredible long term benefits of automation.
Vincent Lecrubier, Sterblue’s CTO, explains this approach very clearly in this article.
Scaling up your inspections
Drone economics are sometimes said to be challenging compared to helicopters due to lower daily productivity. Automating your drone flight increases the daily productivity around 50% depending on the environment. Up to 60 transmission towers can be inspected per day in good conditions (50m high). You can take a look at this video.
The drone does not necessarily fly faster in automatic flight but the whole mission becomes faster instead: the flight is leaner with complex manœuvres made easy. All the tiny operations needed to be done in a manual flight are literally… deleted or drastically reduced. No need to waste time managing the precise drone location around a 400kv line insulator or tuning sensor parameters to get the perfect shot.
Make the user experience great, otherwise no one will engage in such an approach.
Around 2012 when the first piece of 3D automation for industrial infrastructure came out in the market it was quite complicated and dedicated to experts with no possible deployment: customized hardware, high price of the systems, difficult to carry from one site to another, challenging to get spares, etc. These systems still exist but a new massive innovation wave later emerged.
Based on the latest technological stacks and highly reliable off-the-shelf drones like DJI’s, some purely software approaches started appearing in the market by 2016. Today it is possible to inspect a transmission tower automatically with a $2,000 off the shelf drone and an Ipad app. That’s a big difference when you see hundreds of pilots engaging like at Southern Company for example.
Let the experts speak
“Sterblue’s flight automation software is a valuable tool in the field and makes the entire Transmission line operation easier, faster, and most of all safer. Their cloud based software was very easy to work with and the AI was able to detect hundreds of conditions in the final report. I was very pleased with the end result of their entire package, from pre-flight to the final report and images” Kelby Thoreson, Field Engineer at American Electric Power
Kelby also testified during our dedicated webinar on “How to Automate Transmission Grid Inspections with Drones and AI” - Watch here!