The entry of drones into various sectors is transforming the approach to inspection and maintenance of assets. This has led to the emergence of new ways of surveillance, monitoring, tracking and maintenance. The deployment of drones in the power, mining, oil and gas, and transport sectors has helped improve on-site safety of their assets and lower maintenance expenses. Drones can provide operators and specialists with complete and real-time visualisation at a fraction of the expense of traditional methods, and without the physical constraints that conventional means impose. The Ministry of Civil Aviation forecasts further acceleration of drone usage across sectors in the coming years, with regulatory support and investments in the pipeline.
Indian Infrastructure takes a look at the advancements happening in the application of drones across various sectors…
Drones have a significant role to play in the power sector throughout the reliability improvement process. They can provide detailed imagery of installations, helping scan potential defects in the systems. They can help monitor conductor sag, manage vegetation, inspect solar panels, monitor infrared circuits for hotspots, provide top view of poles and towers, and identify abnormalities or defects in various equipment. Drones can also significantly impact the renewable energy segment. Drones equipped with digital and/or thermographic cameras can cover the entire surface area of a wind turbine, including parts that cannot be manually accessed. In colder regions, sprinkler-equipped drones can help improve the performance of wind power plants by de-icing blades.
As one of the key players in the power sector, Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited has deployed two drones, hired between November 2021 and March 2022, for the maintenance of its power lines, poles and towers. Equipped with integrated thermal vision cameras, and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems, the drones measure distances during electrical asset inspection, monitoring and mapping with the aid of the global positioning system. Additionally, the company plans to develop in-house drone infrastructure along with an artificial intelligence (AI)-based data analytics module, and appoint its own drone pilots.
Sterlite Power Transmission Limited is also moving towards using drones in its asset management processes. Its use of drones in stringing conductors on transmission lines is adding efficiency to reconductoring and making it
cost-effective by saving on manual labour. It has previously deployed this technology for some of its flagship projects, such as Kerala’s Shoranur Junction railway station.
The mining sector is rapidly adopting drones for surveillance and detection of faults in critical areas. Drones can capture high definition photos and videos of inaccessible areas. They can also help monitor drilling operations, charging and stemming operations, safety checks, and post-blast inspections. Subsequently, stockpile management and volumetric analysis ensure proper comparison of volumes in the stockyard, and in-situ and excavated volumes, in the cross-section reports.
Being one of the prominent companies in the sector, Central Mine Planning & Design Institute Limited (CMPDI) has several ongoing projects for remote coalfield monitoring and surveillance. It has used drones to map and survey coalfields of the state-run Coal India Limited, acquiring data through unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-based optical, LiDAR and thermal payloads, and aiding in volumetric measurement and inspections. As of August 2022, CMPDI aims to use drones in the detection of underground fires and waterlogging in coal pits in order to safeguard their assets. The drones will also capture high resolution photographs to generate 3D models to aid overburden removal at the coal mines.
Oil and gas
The oil and gas sector has deployed drones to survey remote and inaccessible areas through high resolution ortho-photography, and detect and analyse changes in pipelines. This has led to the generation of reports based on actual photographic analysis rather than manual views. Drone imagery also helps preserve a
user’s right of inspection by eliminating any scope for manipulation.
Some oil and gas players are actively adopting the technology. Oil India Limited launched a surveillance project in October 2021 to enable complete visibility of crude oil delivery lines and flowlines, and ensure the security of national assets with the help of drones. Vedanta Limited uses drones to detect safety risks at its smelting units and leakages in its oil and gas pipelines in Rajasthan. GAIL Limited has deployed drones on a pilot basis for aerial surveillance of the Hazira-Vijaypur-Jagdishpur pipeline in the Chambal ravines in Madhya Pradesh. They are used to patrol the gas pipeline and detect abnormal physical activities such as encroachment or intrusion.
Drones have been deployed for the monitoring of various aspects of the roads, highways, aviation, railways and port sectors. They are helpful in bridge inspection, pavement condition and distress monitoring, and monitoring the progress of under-construction physical infrastructure projects. Drones can also facilitate online and offline extraction of traffic parameters from videos, which can be utilised in traffic flow analysis.
The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has issued standard operating procedures for mandatory monthly drone surveys for all highway and road projects. It has empanelled nine drone agencies in five zones, with specifications laid out for in-house drones. NHAI has also made it mandatory for drones to make video recordings across all stages of national highway projects. Asteria Aerospace Limited received India’s first micro category drone type certification from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on October 6, 2022. This was for an indigenously designed A200 drone, meant for surveillance and mapping activities in various sectors including mining and construction. With advanced features such as multiple fail-safes, automated take-off and landing, tool-less assembly and disassembly, and a flight time of up to 40 minutes, the drone could form the basis of advanced asset management.
At the organisational level, there is a conservative mindset regarding the adoption of this technology in public sector undertakings. At a statutory level, there is a lack of clarity and no standard procedure for the adoption of drone technology in most sectors. This leaves players with no benchmarks to meet for their technical usage, leading to inaccurate and inconsistent results. A single-window system does not exist for the resolution of administrative issues. The restriction on beyond visual line of sight flights for UAVs is a big impediment for the surveillance of long linear assets such as gas and oil pipelines. UAV operations are also limited by their battery life. The flight time of the drones can vary based on the battery and type of drone.
The scope of drone use is enlarging in the infrastructure sectors with newer drone types and related technologies entering the market. AI and video analytics tools may prove to be useful for the identification of black spots/potholes and encroachments on roads, vehicle tracking, and roadside asset management, among other uses. The development of cargo drones will help in carrying heavy payloads in the power sector. Even the agricultural sector has widely accepted the Kisan Drone Scheme, 2022, meant to promote the use of drones for fertiliser and nutrient spraying, assessment of crops and digitisation of land records. Moreover, with the relaxation of drone regulations to encourage domestic drone manufacturing, investment in the drone manufacturing industry is expected to reach Rs 9 billion in 2024-25 from Rs 0.6 billion in 2020-21. Therefore, this technology is going to become even more valuable for asset management in the near future.
With inputs from presentations and remarks at a recent India Infrastructure conference