The Perks and Challenges of Using Drones in Engineering
Drones might be one of the hottest gifts out there, but they are capable of so much more than simply taking astonishing aerial photos. Drones are also useful in medical aid delivery and military use. Every day, new industries and spheres invent another way or two to use drones to their benefit.
Engineering has been probably one of the first fields that understood the many ways in which drones could be used. Along with such modern tendencies as IoT and cloud computing, 3D printing and blockchain, the drone industry offers many opportunities for engineering. So, what exactly do drones in engineering mean? What kinds of drones are used and how can businesses benefit from them?
Types of Drones
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – the official name for drones – were initially used for military purposes. Now the market offers a wide range of drone models – from toys to complex systems with sensors and radars.
There are several ways to sort out all the variety of drone models:
- By size: from nano – 5-100 mm (some engineers are working on the models of 2 mm and smaller) which are used to explore small areas or enter the place invisibly; to larger models – over two feet, able to carry up to 30kg for extended periods of time due to the powerful motors and solid frames.
- By rotor: monocopter – a newcomer to the drone family – has only one rotor and lifts by spinning rapidly; it’s a small and portable model, used by enthusiasts rather than businesses. Octocopter has eight separate propellers and motors and it is the most powerful and quickest drone which can hold heavy loads and steadily carry them. Other models include the tricopter, hexacopter and the most popular – the quadcopter.
- Winged drones: Fitted with wings instead of rotors, these drones use less energy. The downsides include a higher price tag and the inability to hover. Winged drones can be plane-like – they were common before the propellor UAVs. Fixed-wing drones are usually made by enthusiast engineers. VTOL drones (vertical take-off and landing) are a hybrid between rotor and plane drones with both fixed wings and propellers. This final category can take off vertically and hover while using less energy.
There are also a couple of recent innovations that do not fall under any category. An ornithopter is a drone that imitates the flight of a bird, flapping its wings. One of the newest invocations in the drone industry, called the Robird, actually looks like a bird – a peregrine falcon, to be exact – and has been used to scare birds away from airports. These UAVs also can be used to observe and study real flocks and scare away rodents from the crops.
Another promising innovation is the omnicopter. This model uses three dimensions to move quickly in any direction with high agility and accuracy. It is still being tested, but the invention can change the way we use drones today.
In regards to engineering and construction, quadcopters, planes and VTOLs are best fitted for the fields’ specifics.
Use of Drones in Engineering
Drones can reach places where humans cannot. Plus, they can be more accurate than people and capture significant amounts of data at once. UAVs are widely used for different works connected either with hard-to-reach places or dangerous working conditions. The benefits are obvious:
- Increased quality of work with more precise and comprehensive maps, photos and measurements.
- Reduced costs – no engineering teams physically walking the route to gather necessary data.
- Fewer measurement faults and the ability for various departments to engage in parallel work with gathered and saved data.
- No safety risks when surveying difficult routes, tough weather conditions, high-level objects, etc.
- Improved decision-making through the real-time observation and day-to-day progress analysis.
UAVs can easily monitor extended areas of land, including inaccessible or weather-dependent parts and pass the data to the team for further planning and logistics. With the help of overhead panorama and 360° view, engineers can gather the necessary information without being physically present in the field, evaluate challenges and improve the general approach to the project.
Oil and gas industry professionals use quadcopters to inspect pipelines of different forms and sizes and detect problems and leaks. These drones use cameras and sensors to take infrared photos before transmitting them to the engineering team for evaluation.
Thanks to drones, many challenging engineering projects are now easier to plan and develop. With the help of laser scanners, drones provide 2D and 3D mapping of any location, indicate distance and show dangerous areas and the structure of the land.
Maintenance of Electric and Gas Equipment
Using thermal imaging and UV cameras, UAVs help to identify gas leaks on towers or detect overheated parts on the electric pylons. In this way, drones save workers from emissions and dangerous high-level check-ups, while also generally reducing maintenance costs.
Drones in the construction industry are used to evaluate the exterior conditions of a building in hard to reach places without endangering human workers. Drone surveying helps to identify property boundaries and observe construction sites for placing a building, aids in creating topographic and hydrographic maps and even assists in calculating the volume of stockpiles for the construction.
How Companies Use Drones to Optimize Processes
Balfour Beatty, a big construction firm with offices in the USA, UK and Europe, used drones to survey and inspect Swan Bridge in Pulborough and the Adur Ferry Bridge in Shoreham-By-Sea. The use of UAVs saved them around 8 000 pounds, said the company’s CIO.
In other examples, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia has a completion deadline of 2026. CIO Fernando Villa said in the interview that they are using drones and a whole range of innovative technologies, including augmented reality and 3D printing, to complete the church by the scheduled deadline.
Energy corporation Shell often uses drones for work in hard-to-reach areas. This includes high towers and the underside of offshore rigs, increasing efficiency, while keeping their personnel safe.
For several years already, UK low-coster EasyJet has been testing UAVs for aircraft inspections and dangerous weather forecast conditions such as lightning and hailstones. RISER Inspection System, used by EasyJet, provides fast and safe check-up using collision avoidance and 3D mapping.
Challenges and Specifics of Drone Usage
The first and foremost challenge of drone implementation is integration into business processes. To fully benefit from the UAVs, companies have to reinvent processes rather than try to integrate UAVs into existing ones. Why? The simple reason is that drones will change the roles of many employees, IT infrastructure, operations with data – and data itself- complementing the company’s ecosystem and addressing specific tasks.
Another tricky issue is proper data analysis and integration. For this, companies need a data management platform, advanced software and qualified specialists. Fortunately, the market of UAV software is rapidly growing, and there are plenty of reasonable offers. Still, some companies will need the custom built and programmed drones to meet specific needs for particular projects.
Drones are the decade’s most popular – and most obtainable – innovations. They were long perceived as the army’s spies or expensive toys for enthusiasts, but for several years, UAVs have been used for commercial purposes. From pizza delivery to high-precision measurements, drones are helping businesses work safer, spend less time on specific tasks and make fast and accurate decisions.
Engineering and construction are two industries that probably benefit the most from UAVs. Impassable routes, significant distances, tough weather conditions, high-level works and the risk of emissions are no problem with drones. To stay competitive, businesses should embrace this mainstream innovation and leverage UAVs to their advantage.