Digital Overload: Or how I Learned to Stop Siloing and Love Drones

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Posted on October 20

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The use of digital information in inspections is a revolution within a revolution: a cell within the body of the digital transformation experienced by every part of society. The transformative effect is profound, and like all transformations, it has had unexpected consequences. Dealing with the challenges produced by those consequences has opened up even more potential for growth.

Eyes: the original camera

Of course, our original inspection tool came preloaded in the hardware of every human; our senses.We’ve been performing inspections of industrial equipment with every one of our senses since the beginning of industrialization—really since the beginning of humanity, but we should try and keep this reined in. Perhaps those sooty factory workers were the original inspectors. However, as remarkable as our senses are (after all, they’ve given us the Renaissance, the Impressionists and Andy Warhol), they are also limited. Without the flimmer of heat waves rising from an asset or the hazy distortion or smell of a chemical leak, our senses can only do so much.

Initially, photography was rarely used in industrial inspections. Even modern cameras required flash photography. Since that was achieved with a small, controlled explosion, it was not seen as a great thing to do around the temperamental machinery of the day. As cameras modernized, their enhancement and versatility allowed some photography in the industrial inspection process. While this was good, it really couldn’t achieve much more than a marginal improvement on existing documentation. Also, those enhanced cameras were expensive, and like every endeavor, the juice must be worth the squeeze.

Digital Cameras

Digital photography may have revolutionized many parts of our lives, but not inspections…at least not initially. The original digital cameras were just faster and safer versions of their obsolete brethren, and a human wielding a digital camera must still follow all the safety rules of a human using just their eyes: our bodies are subject to damage from heat, noxious chemicals and the other byproducts of modern production; to put it glibly, there is no app for that. Even so, inspectors could utilize that technology to compare pixels picture-to-picture and detect fugitive emissions. 

However, Moore’s law applies to more than just semiconductor and processor speed. Cameras had uses beyond the selfie; specialized cameras that captured the infrared spectrum, heat levels, etc. existed long before digitization gripped society. They were, of course, expensive, and brought their own challenges. Regardless, the idea of using a camera to measure temperature was a good one.

The real tipping point came as these optics became smaller and cheaper. Now, the need to depend on the human eye was no longer an issue when you could use a small, effective tool that let you check for the beginnings of problems and circumvent their exasperation. A step forward, but they still needed a human to wield them.

And now we have robots

It was around this time when we became aware of drones. However, in the minds of many, drones were either giant military craft or small toys; fun, but impractical due to cost and limited payload. Seemingly overnight to those not paying close attention, drones went from toys to valuable inspection tools: prices dropped and power increased. Suddenly, inspectors had a method to go where their physical bodies could not. Heat tolerances beyond humans, the ability to enter small spaces, the ability to fly—and no pesky need for air to breathe—all this made drones the perfect answer to the need for safer inspections.

The devices collected a vast amount of information in many forms. The payload of digital cameras and measurement tools produced thousands of images in minutes; millions of bytes of data in the form of measurements. The analog famine was replaced by the digital feast. Now, inspectors have the ability to send drones practically anywhere and capture practically anything they require, safely and cost-effectively.

Unintended Consequences

Big Data had arrived. A tremendous amount of information flooded into the inspector’s workflow. Where one or two pictures often gave a little additional context, they now had to contend with thousands of images. And this introduced new problems, of course. For example: sorting, naming, storing, transporting and recalling.

While machine learning is hot right now, it’s not yet to the point where it can spot deviances in images with the accuracy required for a solid ESG interpretation. It’s great for measurements if you have a significant amount of solid, historicized data. What this all means is that we still rely on old-fashioned human know-how and cognition to spot problems. Ergo, a human must review thousands of images to find the correct image with the correct angle on the asset to add to their report. Anyone who has gone through a wedding photoshoot’s results knows this is a time consuming endeavor. 

Once the correct images have been located, they must now be named. Specific operations have specific conventions for naming files, and IMG-015151 is not usually acceptable. Just a small amount of digital imagery quickly becomes unmanageable if named poorly and not put in an effective folder hierarchy. All of which requires more time from inspectors.

Even named properly and placed in the correct folder, another problem comes into the fore: storage. Digital images are larger and becoming larger; the increased use of video creates massive files that cannot be emailed—it’s not a TikTok, it’s a huge, lossless video file. So either one huge file or lots of smaller, but still memory intensive files need a place to live. Is it on your system? Your subcontractors? The where is as important as the how much. Files delivered on an external hard drive are not simple to recall remotely.

And you’ll eventually need to recall them, either for reporting or confirmation or some other reason. Getting a file across a plant can be a hassle, especially if it’s on an external drive. Getting a file to another continent so HSE teams can review it can feel impossible. Some teams resort to mailing copies. It sounds backwards, but we have reliable infrastructure to get physical things from place to place. Moving digital files digitally is  constrained by bandwidth. Your gmail account will balk and take a week off if you try to send a 100 gig subsea video.

All this means at the point in the process where recall is necessary, it may be impossible. Digging through dozens (or more) of external drives to find the specific image necessary, ensuring it is in the right format and getting it to where it needs to go was, unfortunately, a time sink with no bottom.

Teams digitizing their operation often found they were spending more time on the overall inspection process when you factor in all these challenges. What they gained in swings they lost in the roundabouts; and maybe those gains were offset a bit as well, leaving them slightly worse-off than before. What was needed was a system that solved the secondary challenges digital inspections created.

HUVR is the Solution

HUVR set out to solve these problems by creating a single, secure platform to manage digital inspection workflows. Digital information ingested by HUVR is automatically categorized, consolidated and converted to the correct format, which is decided by the user. 

Instead of siloed files at various sites, information from all over your company is kept in one place. It’s also tagged to the asset in question, meaning reporting is easy and inspection and ESG strategies are not hampered by disorganized data. 

Fugitive emissions inspection is just one example of how HUVR can speed up the process when new technology is engaged. A plant utilizing OGI may reduce time spent on inspections by 33%. However, the gains in time were lost in organizing the data. HUVR ingested the inspection reports, regardless of source, and categorized and cataloged everything automatically. The end result was emissions inspections took 40% less time. The new technology was finally being effectively leveraged.

Remember those massive video files? HUVR, aside from keeping the data in one place, also streams files, making them more accessible for review, as the videos could easily be watched on the portal in a browser. A voice-to-text AI tool takes inspector’s spoken commentary and turns it into searchable text, saving transcription time and making data retrieval easy, removing the necessity to view a Ben Hur-length video of undersea pipeline. 

These are only a few examples of how the HUVR system is the answer to the challenges created by the use of new digital tools, and allows companies to reap the benefits promised at scale.

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