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Drone technology is taking asset management to new heights

The perspective provided by “eyes in the sky” is proving invaluable, but determining how drone technology can best be incorporated into workflows demands consideration, writes Martin Kovacs.

Also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have for some time been gaining prominence in the broader water industry toolkit, being deployed across varied asset management applications, as those within industry explore how the technology can be utilised.

Seqwater Project Definition Planner Julian O’Mara observed that “exciting new opportunities” are emerging amid ongoing development of the technology.

“For Seqwater, the use of drone technology is steadily becoming part of normal work, with different departments within the organisation exploring their application and looking to equip different employees with drones as part of their toolkit,” O’Mara said.

Seqwater engages consultants to undertake asset management activities, and is focused on growing its internal program, as it develops an understanding of how different areas of its business may benefit from adoption of the technology.

This is a trend observed at a global scale, with research firm IDC forecasting utilities would book the largest individual sector share of worldwide enterprise drone spending in 2018, at US$912 million (around $1.16 billion).

Extending frontiers

The safety benefits of deploying drones to assist with asset management are an immediate attraction of the technology. Drones reduce many of the inherent risks associated with field operations, and logistically can provide significant advantages over traditional inspection methods.

The twin potential to reduce costs and bolster productivity, and the evolving capacity to acquire data for increasingly targeted applications, is spurring innovation and uptake.

IDC expects that global enterprise drone spending will record a five-year compound annual growth rate of 36.6%.

“The industry is evolving extremely rapidly, and new improvements and applications are being developed every day,” UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Water Research Laboratory Senior Research Associate Dr Mitchell Harley said.

“Drones are being used for a wide range of purposes. In their simplest form – for example, a quadcopter drone equipped with a high-resolution video camera – they are extremely practical for close visual inspection
of water assets, such as pipelines, sewage treatment plants and breakwaters.”

Former Geomatic Technologies Innovation and Solutions Manager Gary Butcher observed that drones have become both cheaper and increasingly capable.

He attributed this to advances in camera technology occurring in concert with other recent innovations, such
as real-time data transmission.

“The drones themselves are more stable, they’ve got more sensors to avoid objects, which means you can get them into tighter places, get them closer to things and get better outcomes,” Butcher said.

“You’re not so reliant on GPS any more, which means you can be flying under things.”

Butcher, however, emphasised that drones are just the “capture platform”, effectively providing a means to an end.

As industry explores different applications of the technology, it is the value of the data acquired that will ultimately determine how drones are deployed.

Drone applications

Development of drones with enhanced battery life, capable of longer flight times and sporting greater payload capacity, has complemented integration of more advanced applications, such as thermal and multispectral imaging, and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) surveying.

Deakin University’s Centre for Regional and Rural Futures Associate Professor John Hornbuckle said the technology is being used in a “broad cross-section of ways” in water management.

Hornbuckle stated that drones capable of acquiring high-resolution images can provide advantages over satellite remote sensing, also offering benefits in conditions where cloud cover may be an issue.

“We have trials and projects, from looking at using drones for detecting leaks in pressurised irrigation systems using thermal cameras, to using multispectral cameras for monitoring aquatic weeds, which retard flows in irrigation delivery channels and reduce water-use efficiencies,” he said.

“We are now seeing many irrigation managers, for instance, using their own drones for monitoring crops and fields.”

O’Mara said Seqwater’s drone program has, to date, primarily focused on assisting water catchment protection planning, with the sheer scale of over 17,000 km of waterway spread out over south-east Queensland presenting significant logistical issues.

Seqwater has been drawing on the technology to aid remediation planning and monitoring.

“Drones significantly assist our planners in gathering timely, high-quality data at a low cost, empowering the decision-making process,” O’Mara said.

“With the drone technology available, each trip into the field now results in the acquisition of data that has much greater value to the immediate planning process, as well as future assessments of investment.”

Extreme events

Drones can also be deployed to assist with emergency management during extreme events.

In the past, information has typically been difficult to obtain during events such as flooding and coastal erosion, with hazardous conditions, including blocked-off roads, hindering efforts to access impacted areas. Drone technology can, however, aid emergency operations, via acquisition of potentially critical data in difficult-to-reach areas.

Harley observed that drones can be deployed both during and immediately after events, pointing to use of the technology during an extreme storm along the south-east Australian coastline in June 2016.

“We were able to launch our drone well away from the impact zone and capture incredible high-resolution information about the magnitude of damage caused to the beach and adjacent houses,” he said. “This simply would not have been possible with traditional technology.”

Challenging future

Among the issues industry will need to address as drone technology is incorporated into workflows is the potential for limited battery life to inhibit applications – as noted by Butcher, the “technology is improving, however constantly having to change batteries as you do things is a challenge”.

Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations also need to be considered before undertaking any sort of activity and in determining the value of different applications, those within industry will need to weigh up the benefits of developing internal programs as opposed to engaging consultants.

Butcher said collision detect-and-avoid and traffic management systems are future areas of focus as drone technology evolves, while identifying beyond visual line-of-sight, flying outside of the operator’s physical vision as the next big push.

“What a lot of people learn very quickly is that flying the drone is kind of easy – you need to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and it’s often your knowledge of the asset, or the site, or the objective, that is more important than the drone,” he observed.

“It will really narrow down in coming years as to where drones really provide value and save time and money –
and I think that’s probably the next level of maturity.”

First published as ‘Drone Disruption’ in Current magazine May 2017.