Wednesday, August 30, 2017 / Perth Australia / By Niekie Jooste
In this edition of "The WelderDestiny Compass":
In the not so distant past, the mention of a drone conjured up images of deadly military drones shooting missiles from the sky. This image is however changing rapidly, as flying recreational drones is starting to be a big thing.
It has become quite affordable to buy a drone that is able to capture really good video images while flying in a rather smooth and stable manner. As the characteristics of ease of use and greater affordability take hold, the commercial applications of drones are busy exploding. From the mundane to the exceptional and heroic, the commercial roles for aerial drones seem almost endless.
While we pray for the victims of disasters like the hurricane in Texas, or the landslide in China, disaster relief teams harness aerial drones to assist in life saving work. In some remote areas, medical supplies and samples are transported via drone. In sports coverage, drones are increasingly replacing more costly and risky options such as helicopters.
In the industrial world, aerial drones are replacing helicopters and light aircraft for geological surveys, power line inspections and cross country pipeline inspections.
It is clear that drones are no longer just for adrenalin junkies and military types. Today we consider where the explosion in drone technology could go within the maintenance and welding industry.
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In the oil and gas industry, the use of remotely operated vehicles is nothing new. Unmanned underwater vehicles have been extensively used in the subsea pipeline industry and off-shore oil and gas installations. These "drones" have become indispensable in these industries, and have no doubt saved many lives, if the same jobs had been done by human divers.
With a history of being willing to spend big to develop remotely operated vehicle applications, it is only a matter of time before the oil and gas industries turn to aerial drones for a lot of difficult, expensive and dangerous work.
The main applications for now are associated with inspection and data gathering. Not only can we have high definition video images captured, but these images can be combined with image analysis software to enable greater efficiency and precision than is possible with human vision alone. When combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, the potential for rapid inspection of infrastructure becomes really promising.
We need to keep in mind that the amount of information and precision of data interpretation can be greatly increased by using multiple sensors in conjunction with each other. Think visible image and infrared image data combined with laser distance measurements.
So, why use drones at all?
The first drone advantage is access: Aerial drones can move in three dimensions, so they can access parts of a structure that would be extremely costly or unsafe for humans to access. There are also collision tolerant drones that allow access into confined spaces that would be dangerous or impossible for humans to access.
The second drone advantage is efficiency: It is much cheaper to operate a drone than a helicopter or plane. It is cheaper to use a drone for inaccessible inspections than to building scaffolds for human access. Potentially drone "fleets" could be stationed on unmanned off-shore platforms to provide monitoring inspections of the facilities, without having to mobilise human inspection crews. The drones can "dock" themselves to re-charge between flights, and to download high volumes of data for analysis.
The third drone advantage is safety: Instead of asking humans to access high installations like flare towers, we can get a drone to get the information for us. Instead of crawling into confined spaces where humans could be overcome by noxious gasses, we can send in a collision tolerant drone. Instead of sending humans over the side of oil and gas platforms for inspections, we can send drones.
Obviously not all measurements can be made with drones, but a drone survey could identify the "worst" looking spots for closer inspection by humans using techniques such as ultrasonic testing.
Have you seen those surgeons that can perform surgery on the other side of the world by using remotely operated surgery "robots"? That is really amazing. When it is more costly to provide the people with the skills, (specialist surgeons in this case) than it is to provide the robots, then economics start to allow that kind of application.
Now imagine if a remotely operated "welding robot" could be flown to an inaccessible location, and you, the welder, could perform the welding remotely? I have no doubt that that kind of thing will eventually become possible, but in the short to medium term there are a number of obstacles to overcome.
The most important is that current welding power supplies are rather big and heavy. Even the new inverter power supplies are rather heavy in the bigger scheme of things. Then we still need the portable power. That would require high energy density batteries. Again, rather heavy in the bigger scheme of things.
So, until welding power supplies are not miniaturised, and battery technology is not improved by an order of magnitude or better, this dream will remain exactly that. A dream. We will however be keeping an eye on these power supply and battery technologies!
So, while drone welding is certainly still rather distant, we will none-the-less interface more and more with drone technology in our field maintenance jobs. - Maybe I should take up drone piloting as a hobby!
Yours in welding
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