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UAVs Industry Best Practice – Part I

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There is a broad range of possible applications and benefits for UAVs, which means that many different industries are interested in them. The following use cases give an overview of the broad usability of UAVs and can serve as an inspiration across industry boundaries.

1.1 Energy/Infrastructure

For big energy players, it is tedious and costly to constantly monitor their infrastructure. This can be due to the vast size of energy sites (mining), the scale of the infrastructure (power lines, pipelines), or the challenging environment (offshore wind parks).

UAVs can be operated more economically than manned helicopters; they are less limited by weather conditions (although this varies by model) and easier to deploy. They can be operated in extreme weather conditions and in geographically challenging locations without putting personnel at risk.

Another advantage is that UAVs can follow a preprogrammed flight path, and fly closer to both the infrastructure and the ground. This allows for highly detailed flight plans, higher measurement accuracy, and increased repeatability. An example from the energy sector is the use of ‘Swiss UAV’ systems to inspect offshore wind power plants in the North Sea and in pipeline monitoring activities in Turkey.

1.2 Agriculture and Forestry

Probably the agriculture and forestry industries don’t spring to mind when considering potential applications for unmanned aerial systems. But in precision agriculture, UAVs are already playing a vital role today. They allow farmers to gather real-time data on crops, detect irregularities as early as possible, and take better decisions about using fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

In addition, animal tracking is another task well suited to the capabilities of UAVs. In forestry, an example of how to use unmanned aerial systems is spotting and mapping forest fires. The US Forest Service had plans to do this in 2013, but stopped because of the restrictive regulatory environment requiring each UAV to be in visual range of its pilot at all times.

1.3 Site and Layout Planning; Construction Sector

Site and layout planning in the construction sector and in other industries can benefit in several ways from the use of unmanned aerial systems. The simplest application is analyzing a site from above, using live footage from a UAV. This gives an overview of the site and indication of site specifics.

Footage and data collected by a UAV can also be used in mapping (UAV-based data collection). And rapid improvements in user-friendliness mean that a wide user group can access the data collection tool: “Automation of aerial data collection makes this platform an attractive option for even those not versed in photogrammetric science.”

Using predefined flight paths is ideal for monitoring progress on construction sites with high accuracy and minimized effort. In addition to planned construction site applications, unmanned aerial systems are well-suited to support post-disaster investigation of damaged buildings.

The Universities of Rome and L’Aquila published a paper on ‘UAV Application in Post-Seismic Environment’, which concludes that “Even if these [conventional surveying] techniques represent instruments of extreme operability there are still many evident limits on their use, especially regarding the survey of both the roofs and the facades of tall buildings or dangerous places, typical of post-earthquake situations. So using micro UAVs for surveying in such particular cases, many of these problems can be easily bypassed.” In a more distant future, UAVs might carry out small maintenance and repair tasks in “difficult-to-reach or high-risk spaces”.

1.4 Environmental Protection

UAVs can play a vital role in environmental protection; for example, in the safeguarding of an endangered species. Already, conservation parks and private game reserves in South Africa are using unmanned flying systems to protect endangered rhinos from poachers.

The US- based environmental activist group ’Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’ launches UAVs from its ships in the Antarctic ocean in the fight to protect whales.15 In this application, a battery-powered ‘Osprey’ system is used; it is “comfortable in the wind and can handle 40 knots” explains Jimmy Prouty, representing the manufacturing company.

“This unit is waterproofed and has multiple security backups so that, if it has problems or a low battery, it automatically returns to base.” It is equipped with GPS systems and a camera that provides both videos and still images. The goal is to detect any movement of Japanese whaling ships as early as possible, enabling the Sea Shepherd fleet to intercept these vessels. Paul Watson, founder of the conservation society, expects UAVs to be used in other environmentally sensitive areas as well; for example, in the highly protected Galapagos Islands.