Inspections can be complicated tasks that need to be completed regularly. With the rise of autonomous drone technology, inspections are becoming safer, quicker and more precise, plus they support the monitoring of infrastructural changes over time.
Increased development of autonomous drone functions are leading to reduced human error and are assisting in more efficient inspections. Their capability to conduct repeated inspections in dynamic environments make it much easier to monitor infrastructural changes over extended periods of time. While the technology will benefit several applications, this blog will be focusing on civil engineering inspections.
Automation has proved itself to be successful in the area of drone inspections. Drone automation levels are defined similarly to the levels for autonomous vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; on a scale of Level 0 - Level 5, with 5 being full autonomy.
Generally, it has been concluded the technology is currently between Level 3 and Level 4 with significant pilot control needed. Level 5 is going to be challenging to reach with many concerns about regulations, traffic conditions, safety, security and privacy.
There has been a lot of research work recently published relating to autonomous inspections based on computer vision and artificial intelligence. Research falls into two main areas, 1, the design of autonomous flight plans and 2, automated data extraction.
The technical factors driving this development for more autonomous inspections include automated path planning, collision avoidance, simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), onboard processing units able to process the data in near real time and advancements in deep learning. Accordingly, the software used by these drones can determine optimal flight paths and process the data to build precise models.
Thanks to UAVs developing greater autonomous functionality over the past couple years, significant improvements have been made in infrastructure inspection operations. Companies are even deploying multiple drones at a time to reduce data collection time even more.
Generally, inspection with UAVs enables time reduction, evaluation of risks in advance, reliability of repeatability and measurements, and increased situational awareness. Overall, the main advantages have proved to be time, safety, cost, reliability, and adaptability.
Infrastructure inspections are one of the top five UAV applications. Most current drones rely on camera sensors and 4k video, but some rely on LiDar as well. Sectors such as oil and gas, industry, energy and construction already or intend to use autonomous UAV tech for inspections, monitoring and repairs. In civil infrastructure there are many advanced applications such as the inspection of wind turbines, bridges, aircraft, industrial tanks, cranes and towers.
Although autonomous drones offer a ton of benefits, there are still some challenges to work on. Depending on your location and flight purpose, some common challenges relate to weather conditions, accessibility, weight and regulations.
The future of civil infrastructure inspections are being shaped by these cutting-edge drone trends. UAV swarms for inspection, better performance in GNSS-denied environments and the use of augmented reality are some of the big developments being worked on right now. This will open the door for new opportunities in industry and business.