by: Bruce Crumley-
Jan. 31st 2023 4:35 am
Officials from the island of Jersey have briefed authorities on neighboring Guernsey about potential implications that looming drone trials are expected to eventually have for daily life and activity on both English Channel territories.
A delegation of Jersey transport officials made the 27-mile trip to Guernsey to discuss UK-sponsored drone testing that – among other things – is expected to lead to fast and affordable transportation services between the two islands, compared to current boat, helicopter, and small plane options.
The initial phase of the trials, slated to be held in the spring of next year, will begin with demonstration drone flights for residents, then proceed on to use in simulated scenarios like critical medical deliveries, offshore fishery patrols, and deployment in search and rescue situations.
The objective is to prepare regular operation of drones in an array of commercial and public services on both Jersey and Guernsey, and – as a logical extension of that smaller UAV tech – eventual air taxi flights between the islands, as well as to France to the east and England to the north.
Jersey was selected as one of the testbeds for the Agile Integrated Airspace System program (ALIAS), which is examining ways of integrating drones and automated cargo and passenger craft within UK airspaces. Though both Channel Islands are independently administrated and separate territories, they maintain longtime special relations with the UK that facilitate common projects like the ALIAS trials.
Funded by a $4.6 million grant from the government-linked UK Innovation and Research organization that promotes next-generation aviation and other emerging technologies, ALIAS is made up of nine business and public partners, including delivery and vertiport company Skyports and Volant Autonomy, an avionics and navigation software startup spun off from the University of Bath.
Though uses cases and outcomes during trials will reflect in the particularities of daily life on Jersey, they’ll also be relevant to and shared with neighboring Guernsey, while also remaining applicable to the kinds of planned drone activities in the UK.
Robin MacRae, an official with the Ports of Jersey who was part of the delegation that visited Guernsey, called the ALIAS trials a first step in a potentially life-changing development process for both islands.
“We see ALIAS as a great opportunity, not just for Ports, but for the Channel Islands,” he said. “It will enable us to move essential medical supplies, bolster our search and rescue capability, and eventually to provide air taxi services within the Channel Islands. Sustainability is also important to us. We want to make swift progress on the decarbonization of aviation, so we are keen to pursue opportunities to work with like-minded partners.”
Drones in the Jersey trials will operate below 3,000 feet – beneath the altitude traditional planes fly – in a designated offshore airspace of 60-square kilometers, and under Jersey Air Traffic Control aegis.
ALIAS testing will rely on an integrated system to manage the UAVs and air traffic control elements, using the Xr aircraft collision avoidance system standard for air taxis and other autonomous aircraft – the only program thus far doing so besides NASA.
Point Cloud From Drones
Point Cloud What Is It? Point Cloud is a series of data points that have been calculated via set methods and assigned torelative locations in space using a specific coordinate system, these data points can be utilised for several processes including 3D imaging for CAD Models, which may eventually be used to manufacture spare parts. Or for BIM (BuildingInformation Modeling) used for the development of new infrastructure. Point cloud is even used in land survey, digitalelevation models and topographical outputs.
Point Cloud, How Is It Achieved? Point cloud (s) can be achieved using various techniques and processed traditionallyvia photogrammetric methods which is the science of capturing images of a specific subject at different angles, whilstusing a high overlap method of up to 90%. The software recognises the common areas across the multiple images andassigns common data points to each resulting in a fluid point cloud.
Historically point cloud has been processed via the use of terrestrial active remote sensing scanners such as laser or radarwhich measure points on a subject surface resulting in deliverable 3D point cloud files. Drone technology adopts the traditional photogrammetry method when considering point cloud outputs, integratingspecific programs that allow to drone pilot to properly plan a flight allowing for sufficient front lap and side lap. whilsttaking into consideration flight height, speed of data collection, whether or not the drone should stop to capture eachimage and various other variables. All of this can affect the density, resolution, and detail within the point cloud which inturn affects any other deliverable formats derived from the point cloud process.
Point Cloud Via Drone, How Accurate Is It? Point cloud accuracy via photogrammetric techniques can be extremelyaccurate when rectified to its respective grid in the case of UK OSGB36 (Ordinance Survey Great Britain 1936) we havecarried out Geospatial survey and processed point clouds that have been within 5mm. It all depends on the quality andaccuracy of the data acquisition and position and accuracy of the assigned ground control points.
GCP’s or Ground Control Points are essential to line up the model to its respective grid and are achieved by choosing orlaying down high contrast tiles and gathering the coordinates X,Y and Z via use of a GPS rover or similar device. Thecoordinates are inputted into the chosen software and the project is then optimised resulting in absolute accuracy. IfGCP’s are not used the point cloud is still accurate although relatively within its own model.
Point Cloud and other 3D Deliverables… The benefits of adopting drone technology to either assist with your 3Dproject or as a standalone option can pay dividends and can help capitalize on specific parts of project budget. Thebenefits as always with drone technology are cost saving and time efficiency.
Deliverables that can derive from the drone processed 3D deliverables are all topographical outputs such as digital surfacemodel (DSM), Digital Elevation Model (DEM), Digital Terrain Model (DTM), Orthomosaic (Orthorectified Imagepresented as a Geotiff), Contour Files, Mesh detailing and all can be merged with terrestrial data.
Cutting costs in infrastructure maintenance with UAVs
Oil rigs, chimneys or antennae – a company's large infrastructure assets are typically remote and difficult to survey. This makes the tried-and-tested method of manual maintenance inspection a costly, time-consuming and sometimes even dangerous process.
But with drones, it doesn't need to be this way. The principle is simple: Instead of a technician climbing up a chimney or wind turbine, why not use a drone armed with a camera to beam footage to an experienced inspector? Or better still, kit out the device with advanced visual and data analytics capabilities and let it assess the asset's status and maintenance needs itself.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can access hard-to-reach places faster, cheaper and with less risk than manual inspections, and potentially allow the asset to remain on line. They may one day also be able to carry out maintenance. In this report, we outline the advantages of drone technology and provide a pathway for decision makers who want to harness its asset-inspection potential. We also show that first movers stand to reap the biggest rewards.
Technology that's really taken off
In the past years, the public's perception of drones has been centered on their military applications. But commercial use of the technology is now on the rise. Our analysis shows that in 2017, the global commercial drone market was worth EUR 3.1 billion, with some three million units shipped. By 2022, the market value could hit as much as EUR 12.6 bn, with over 15 m units shipped.
This boom is the result of growing recreational, business and research use. It's now common for real estate agents to take aerial footage of houses, for example, while conservationists use them to monitor wildlife. And who hasn't contemplated the thought of a journey in an unmanned drone taxi?
In general, drones are expected to become prominent in all use cases that meet the so-called 4D criteria: dull, dirty, distant, dangerous. This makes them a great fit in the field of asset inspection, mainly in the energy and transportation sectors.
A simple and cost-effective business solution
With cost pressure a growing concern among asset operators and industrial services companies, UAV-based asset inspection offers a new way to optimize cost and time savings, increase performance and quality, and thereby secure a competitive edge.
The offshore oil and gas industry has already realized the potential to be had here. Total, BP, Shell, Statoil and others use drone-based unmanned aerial systems (UASs) to inspect their oil platforms, combining video and thermal imaging with advanced image recognition technology and automated data analysis. These have cut inspection times from eight weeks to five days while allowing operations to continue.
Based on this success, the industry has started to extend its use of UAV asset inspection to other infrastructure, such as plant chimneys. It is doing this in close collaboration with leading specialist firms like CyberHawk and SkyFutures.
In such a nascent field, it's hard to put a figure on the exact savings UAV inspections offer. But we have learned from our work with asset operators and service companies that the potential is enormous: Costs for the inspection of an onshore wind turbine can be reduced by 50% per turbine, assessments of large cargo oil storage tanks can be completed several days faster than with manual methods, and chimney flue inspections, which traditionally require days of shutdown, can be performed in hours, with savings of up to 90%. And that's not to mention the reduced risk to personnel.
Why now is the time to move
With success stories mounting, it's likely that many more asset operators – from rail companies to grid operators and pipeline constructors – will introduce drone inspection technology. So we believe now is the moment to get on board.
But while the potential of UAV inspections is clear, it is worth considering, as with any new technology, the challenges they present. The young market is highly fragmented, with the few established providers pitted against startups and all pursuing various hardware, software and service provision models: DJI, 3D Robotics, Yuneec, Parrot, AeroVironment, Insitu, Martek, Ambarella, and Lockheed Martin to name just a few. This makes it tricky to select the right partner.
In addition, aviation authorities are still struggling to regulate drone use. While the US Federal Aviation Administration and the Single European Sky ATM Research Program (SESAR) are looking at the problem, much remains to be done, including on rules for beyond-line-of-sight operations.
But such challenges also present opportunity, and demonstrate that the sector can still be shaped by larger players. By adopting the technology now, companies will be able to work with the technology pioneers to overcome obstacles such as limited battery lives, assist in the formulation of regulations and secure a competitive edge by being the first to make savings from drone-backed asset maintenance.
The drones just get better
Looking forward, first movers will have the best chance of unleashing the technology's full potential. They will quickly be able to become more data driven in an era when data is king and leverage their know-how into a new business model, perhaps even providing drone services to others.
The prospect of future developments in UAV asset inspection also provides compelling reasons to act now. Advances in battery technology, for example, will enable greater and greater ranges, while new fuel cell, solar, tethering, and gas power systems could enable almost continuous operations.
And with drones able to stay aloft nearly all day, improved computing capacity and artificial intelligence (AI) will enable them to perform real-time analysis. Growing computing muscle will also aid the development of so-called swarms of drones, which will call on AI to work together on increasingly complex tasks.
And how about this all being done autonomously? That too could soon be a reality. Several companies are already pushing the technological boundaries here. These include SkyX, a Canadian firm that is developing an autonomous, self-charging drone for the inspection of North America's vast oil and gas pipeline network.
A simple pathway to drone-based asset inspection
So that leaves one key question: how can asset operators quickly exploit the potential of drones? We suggest a network-based approach that leverages existing market knowledge via a pilot project.
The first step is to set up a small project team with a dedicated, empowered leader. This person needs to have the mindset to perform in an agile environment and the clout to push the project through. A top-level sponsor is essential.
Once in post, the project leader should begin building a network of drone experts. This needs to encompass several areas. First, regulators and industry associations to help secure necessary licenses, as well as any publicly available funds. Second, established hardware, software and drone-based service providers to determine the current state of the market, available technologies (off-the-shelf or customizable), and whether any shortcuts are possible, for example via test runs with an existing service provider. Finally, startups and academia – this is where important developments happen and where top talent will most likely be found.
Next, while continuing to build the network, the team should use intermediate findings to design (and continuously adapt) the pilot project. This would include selecting a drone model and payload (ideally off-the-shelf to save time), identifying suitable assets for a trial run, and defining a timeline and KPIs. The KPIs should include UAV-specific indicators as well as inspection-specific markers to monitor drone performance. It's important not to over-engineer the trial – the goal should be proof-of-concept rather than a finished product.
After that, it's time to run the pilot. A key part of this should be agile monitoring of progress, with lessons learned compiled and fed back into the process. For example, has the UAV model proven itself, and does the process need refinement?
The final step should be focused on expanding the project. The best course of action will depend on the pilot's results, but a set of core questions will underpin all scenarios. These include whether the company should build all inspection capacity in-house and develop knowledge independently, or whether it should partner with or invest in a startup, university program, or drone service provider.
Flying into the sunset
It's clear from the examples and successes outlined in this piece that drone-based asset inspection is likely to become the new standard in asset inspection. By getting on board now, companies have the chance not only to gain a head start on their competitors, but also to maximize savings. Perhaps more importantly, they could also help to redefine the asset inspection business model and become service providers themselves.
By: Uwe Weichenhain
JANUARY 29, 2019
Co-author: Sascha Schuster