Drone Program Best Practices—Equipment

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Posted on April 01

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Drone Program Best Practices—Equipment

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of blogs about best practices for drone programs

Kicking off a drone inspection program can be intimidating to the uninitiated. After all, you’re essentially starting a small Air Force. The FAA adds another regulatory agency you’ll have to comply with. Drones can be expensive and the new set of challenges can feel overwhelming.

However, the benefits of drone inspection outweigh the headaches. When you start your own program, your level of control is total. You can micromanage procedures to fit the exact needs of your site (or sites), making it a very effective use of resources. And, to address the concerns of the prior paragraph, we have decided to create a few blogs about best practices to help you get started. 

This entry concerns equipment. While every operation is unique, and your best bet when deciding what you’ll need to get started is to have an expert who can help you decide, there are some general concerns you’ll need to factor in. So please don’t consider this a shopping list; it’s more of a starting point. Also, buckle up--this is a long one.

Drone Platform

Obviously, you’re going to need drones. We don’t think it’s blowing your mind to say this. However, all drones are not created equally. You’ll need to consider what you’re trying to accomplish. With that in mind, working with vendors, you should be able to find the right tool for the right job. Some factors to consider:

  • Range--how far do you need this thing to go
  • Flight time--how long will a drone to fly concurrently, without changing batteries (trust us--batteries are about to be a big part of your life)
  • Payload--What kind of sensors are you loading up? Does your preferred model support this weight?
  • Environment--Where are the things you plan on inspecting? What is the climate like there?

A note on environment: The more specific you get, the better. Using GPS coordinates you can get very specific (and very publicly available) weather information. Take a look at the long-term trends and plan for the extremes.

Software and Automation

The more robust a software platform you invest in, the better. Of course, we have some ideas about who makes the best in certain areas, but consider all your options--especially what you’re going to be doing. 

No doubt your drones will come with operational software; asking what it can do and comparing that to your needs is step one. If you require more or different features, you’ll need to branch out into third-party options. This is often a good thing, as you’ll be able to find something that works for your specific requirements. 

It’s beyond the scope of this post to make even a cursory list of all the different factors to consider, but here’s some general advice: you’re going to be married to this software for some time; go slowly and choose wisely. That being said, there is one aspect of software we’d like to discuss a bit more: automation.

Automation (which we will talk about like its own thing, even though it’s part of your software platform) comes on a sliding scale from simple to complex. How complex you need your automation capacity to be depends on (of course) how complicated the tasks are you plan on automating. Simple automation might be mapping an area. Complex might be capturing vertical surfaces to generate a 3D model, while incorporating a complicated flight plan, while inspecting an asset. 

Whew, that DOES sound complex; but there’s more. Perhaps you need your software to plan an efficient flight route while avoiding collision by respecting elevation tags. Can it stitch together images to create an orthomosaic? You get the picture.

Note: Orthomosaic is an aerial photography term to mean an image that has been geometrically corrected to have a universal scale and be true to topography, allowing the accurate measurement of distances. The process is called “orthorectification” and yes, we did include it to sound cool.

Payloads

Once you’ve got your drones and the software to run them, you’re going to need some kind of sensor to do the inspection. As we discussed very briefly in the personnel discussion, some of them are going to need a dedicated operator; some will require special training. There are a lot of options, and (like everything) it depends on your specific needs, but here’s a rundown of the most common:

  • RGB Camera: Just like your iPhone! It’s for still images, but comes in many varieties with different capabilities and lenses. Regardless, still images are the backbone of inspections.
  • Video HD (or increasingly, 4k): In some inspections, you’ll need to see motion. You can also pull still images out in a pinch, but the quality won’t be the same.
  • Infrared: There are a few kinds, but when you need to detect temperature variants, it’s your best bet. Also can make you feel like the Predator.

Those are the big three, but just to give you an idea of what’s out there, here are a few of the more specialized sensor payloads:

  • LiDAR: Uses a laser to map out terrain or measure distances, which allows very precise measurements.
  • Gas Detection: Tuned specifically to the spectral band of hydrocarbon gases, these sensors can spot gas leaks and plumes that would be invisible to other sensors (like our eyes).
  • Multispectral: Can very precisely measure the difference in color from different types of plants. This payload uses both visual and infrared sensors and special software.

Batteries

All aircraft have a fuel source, and for drones, it’s batteries. Specifically, the lithium-ion variety. You’re going to need more than you think, and this will be a significant part of your operating expense. 

Note: Lithium-Ion batteries can be dangerous if improperly managed. Please refer to the instructions provided by the manufacturer to ensure you are complying with all safety precautions.

Batteries don’t last forever--even rechargeable versions--so they’ll need to be replaced over time. However, there are some things you can do to ensure they last as long as possible. 

For instance, make sure you’re storing them at the correct charge level. Again, refer to the instructions from the manufacturer. Also, batteries should be stored at the correct temperature--this can often be challenging in the field. However, assuming you know exactly the sweet spot for everything with your batteries, when you start thinking about how many you’ll use in a day (often 50 or more), the idea of a “smart” battery becomes, well, smarter.

Here are a few more battery tips:

  • Lithium-ion batteries are a hazard when traveling. You can’t check them in the event of air travel, so they’ll need to be shipped ground or via a hazmat broker.
  • Batteries should never be charged unattended.
  • Batteries should never be hot, in the most literal definition. 
  • Cycle your batteries equally.
  • Charge slowly; it takes time, but it’s far safer.
  • If you notice a battery is swollen or hot, take it out of service immediately.

You’ll notice much of the advice is about charging; that’s when most accidents happen, so be sure you’re mindful during the process.

 

Vehicles

The vehicles used to transport drone inspection gear and personnel are specialized. You can’t just toss this stuff into the back of your 1981 Trans Am and go. And look, we love a Trans Am, but you need the right tool for the right job (seems like we say that a lot).

The fleet used to transport the drones should have:

  • Temperature controlled areas for storing batteries
  • Room to lay out bags and do repair work
  • Fire extinguishers and other safety gear
  • A launch board for drones
  • A way to document changes in the SOP for inspectors (see this post)

 

Spares and Repairs

Obviously, even with the most careful use, things can break. Things are going to wear out no matter how careful you are. You don’t want to find yourself in the field without a replacement; that won’t be a fun phone call. So here’s some basic ideas about what to take with you:

  • You should have enough tools and parts to repair drones in the field, but also back at HQ (so enough in every vehicle, plus a set back at the office)
  • “Frequent failure” parts will need multiple spares on hand--think of tires in cars
  • You can never have too many memory cards

Essentially, you’ll develop this list over time, so we’ll leave you with this: Never let a $2 wrench shut down operations.

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