Drones the new tool for inspection and audits in heavy industry

Two Australian companies have
given, heavy industry a much faster and safer means to inspect or audit dangerous
and inaccessible areas.

Soto Consulting Engineers aerial
photography specialist Coptercam use remote control flying equipment, commonly
known as drones.

The solution largely
eliminates reliance on teams of personnel, rigging and scaffolding and the
dangers involved, plus it cuts down much of the time it previously took for
inspections of large scale plant and equipment.

The drone alternative puts
more control into the hands of proprietors through major cost savings and the
near-elimination of shutdowns for plant audits.

“Heavy industrial and mining environments, for
instance, are harsh on both the service personnel and equipment, plus the
downtime associated with work can be a very expensive exercise,” said Managing
Director of Soto Group, Mr Frank Soto.

“Safety of the people
involved is always at some sort of risk as inspection procedures normally
involve an element of physical danger.

“Then there are cases where
the overall condition of structures on some sites is perpetually overlooked
because access is difficult, dangerous and expensive for operators and auditors.”

Soto Consulting Engineers’
association with Coptercam opens many new possibilities across a range of
industries including civil engineering, mining, bulk handling, forensic
engineering as well as for services to the manufacturing and minerals
processing sectors.

The drone solution through
Soto/Coptercam involves very few people and can achieve in a single day what
traditional means would in a week.

For example, where a team of
professionals would be assembled with harnesses, scaffolding and other
structures, a Coptercam craft is simply flown into the affected areas with a
specially mounted camera capable of high resolution photo stills and video or
thermal imaging.

The drone is operated
remotely at a safe base on the ground by a fully certified Coptercam pilot
alongside a Soto engineer viewing a HD monitor in real time during the
inspection exercise.

Coptercam operation is a
two-person crew (pilot and camera operator) which divides the task of
controlling the aircraft and focusing on the image capture. This is safer and
ensures a better result.

Also, the camera is mounted
on a 3-axis gyro-stabilised gimbal that is controlled independently of the
aircraft above – in both 360 degree pan (rotation) and 110 degrees of tilt –
with remote record control and shutter control.

Structures already been
inspected by Coptercam technology include bridges, exhaust stacks, roads,
elevated conveyors, handling towers.

Generally, a site normally
doesn’t even need a shutdown and the manual tasks and expensive associated
infrastructure which used to take a week now only take a single day.

“Statutory audits in the coal
mining sector will be one of the real beneficiaries of our new solution,” said
Mr Soto.

“The coal mining industry
provides for statutory structural audits to be undertaken annually to locate
potential hazards arising through vibration, stress fatigue or corrosion.

“These audits presently
consume significant man hours. Often difficult access and terrain precludes
many structures from complete inspection and the true condition of the
structure or plant remains unseen and unreported possibly for years, thus
giving rise to hazardous issues and expensive consequences.”

Coptercam’s Mr Glen McGarry
says traditional methods of site inspection – whether at a mine site, exhaust
stack, bulk handling facility or high rise structure – always involve a rather
large team of people, a lot of OH&S induction and familiarisation, and a
lot of time to complete.

“Whereas traditionally there
has always been a risk of people and contractors getting injured, the use of
drones minimises risk especially at heights or confined spaces

“For example, the legal
height limit for us to fly a drone is 122m (400-feet), so to inspect a smoke
stack we simply fly the drone straight up from the ground 122m high (legal
height limit), whereas before it used to involve personnel on ropes coming in
from the top which is slow and is putting lives at risk.”

Our task with Soto is to
photograph or video the infrastructure in a systematic manner to document the
structure and make an assessment,” said Mr McGarry.

Coptercam is
fully licensed and authorised by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for
provision of all its services.

The company
has offices in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, South Australia and a satellite office
in Brisbane. The ACT is serviced by Sydney and NT by South Australia.

“In the hands of an
accredited expert, a drone can be mounted with a camera of choice (24MP with real-time
zoom function or 36MP fixed), positioned to hover in the air at any chosen
viewing point, take as many photographs as required which are then analysed by
Soto engineers back at the office.

“Therefore, the team can
easily work out what sort of remediation is required without sending a single
human being into the danger zone. Importantly, in real-time via the HD live
camera feed to the ground, the attending SOTO engineer can direct Coptercam to
focus on a specific area of interest as a hazard is identified.

“If you use a cherry picker
it requires a very flat and stable platform but most places are not like that.
To the drone it doesn’t matter – it will safely take off from almost any
surface.”