by Kevin Price — This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of FMJ Magazine.
New technology is sexy—especially when it revolutionizes the way things are done. That’s why FMs are so interested in what they can achieve with them. Drones can transform dull, dirty and dangerous maintenance activities by providing a bird’s eye view of the facility and its assets. All this while reducing risk and saving money.
The tech—how drones work
How exactly do drones work? Anyone who’s seen a drone in action probably knows that it is an unmanned aircraft that is guided remotely. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, vary in size, ranging from large military versions to smaller aircraft that are launched by hand or require a short runway.
The “brain” of the drone is its control system, which communicates with sensors, cameras, GPS and other navigation components housed in the nose of the UAV. The rest of the drone is made of lightweight material that makes it easy to control and allows it to cruise at very high altitudes.
Drones can be tethered to keep them from “escaping” and to make it less likely that they will encounter jammed signals. Unlike free-flying drones that may have a battery life of only a few minutes, tethered drones can be in operation for hours, since power comes up from the ground through the tether and not from on-board batteries.
For facility managers, drones have some unique capabilities that lend themselves well to maintenance inspections:
- Perch-and-stare – A maneuver that can include landing on rooftops or windowsills, or flying from rooftop to rooftop, all while gathering information through cameras and sensors. UAVs are ideal for surveillance because of their unique ability to take off and land vertically, but their usefulness can be impeded by fog, smoke, wind, and other environmental factors.
- Video capture and live video feeds – Drones allow views of multiple angles and close-up video of hard-to-reach assets that previously were difficult, dangerous or expensive to inspect. Advanced imaging cameras can zoom in to show the smallest details.
- Laser scanning – Enables 3-D modeling of every type of structure or asset. Precision farming, forestry and mining have been some of the earliest adopters of this technology.
Other industries that can especially benefit from drone-based asset management are government agencies, aviation, oil and gas, and rail transportation. These industries include airplanes, historic buildings, offshore oil drilling platforms, cargo ships, refineries, chemical storage areas, pipelines, railroad track and bridges, and other equipment that can be difficult to physically inspect. Drones with powerful zoom lenses can be deployed to more safely and easily assess these assets. A drone can go where no human can, such as near a burning oil rig—and drone inspections can take place without shutting down production.
Why drones are important
“Drones are data gathering machines,” says Louis Wise, Chief Science & Technology Advisor, Drone Aviation Corp (DAC). “We can deploy them to vantage points that are difficult or impossible for humans to get to, and pass the information they gather back to an asset management system.”
The World Economic Forum observes that: “Infrastructure is essential for sustained economic growth, competitiveness and social progress. While building new infrastructure assets ranks high on the global agenda, governments in both developed and developing countries often neglect their existing infrastructure assets—witness the increasing congestion, unnecessary operational costs and inadequate maintenance. Against the backdrop of increasing user demand, constrained financing and an ageing asset base, it is imperative for governments to make the most of their existing infrastructure assets—specifically, to increase the assets’ productivity and longevity.”
The Forum goes on to recognize a similar urgency for capital-intensive industries: “Thanks to recent innovations in digital technologies—such as remote sensing, advanced analytics, autonomous operations, and integrated scheduling and control—traditional ‘bricks’ infrastructure can now be used more effectively, and operated and maintained more efficiently.”
How facilities managers will benefit from using drones
Integrating drone data with an asset management system results in realistic, unique, and timely understanding of asset condition. Knowing the current condition of your assets, in as much detail as possible, makes life a lot easier to keep them operating as you need them to: in the safest, most efficient, and most productive way possible.
Input sensor data like color video, thermo video, still frames, and LIDAR 3D data can be stored on a long-term basis for analysis—and often to fulfill document retention requirements. During the inspection cycle, the asset management software should bring in sensor data from past inspections, as well as the inspection standards that apply from both internal and external sources, such as legal, government, and industry regulations and guidelines. You should be able to identify the assets that require immediate attention, versus those that may have repairs deferred. The drone data coupled with your asset management capabilities can enable oversight of the ongoing condition of your facilities and equipment, helping to ensure compliance and mitigate the risk of being blindsided by a maintenance emergency.
There are significant economic and environmental requirements for keeping facilities operational and safe. Investing in drone technology gives you the ability to reduce costs while increasing safety. “In the inspection world, unmanned aircraft have a distinct cost and safety advantage over using people on ropes, ladders, scaffolding, and bucket trucks,” says Skylogic Research’s Colin Snow. 
Snow goes on to cite an article at TwinCities.com, which observes “that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT) recently completed a study on the benefits of using drones to inspect roads and bridges. MDOT estimated that a standard bridge deck inspection costs $4,600, takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment. The same inspection with a drone takes just two people and two hours, at a significantly lower cost.”
Adds Todd Johnson, Senior IT Support Specialist & EAM/Park Stat Supervisor, Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission: “From a safety perspective, I think about all the injuries, and a lot of those are people falling off ladders. If we could even reduce that just 50%, that would be saving us millions of dollars.” 
Despite tight budgets and aging infrastructure, organizations must somehow find ways to maximize the value of their existing assets. Employing drones to search out and monitor developing issues instead of discovering them only when they have become problems can help to avoid costly repairs or replacements, decrease downtime, and reduce exposure to safety risks. The life cycles of facilities and equipment can be lengthened, delaying new capital expenditures. Even small improvements in facility maintenance can have a remarkable impact, where each percentage of improvement can, depending on the size of your organization, translate into thousands, millions, or billions of dollars saved.