Lifting infrastructure inspections to new levels with drones

Understanding the state of your assets is crucial for industrial players to deliver their products in a safe and productive manner. Oil platform operators obsess on the status of their equipment and airline companies monitor micro cracks in the structure of their airplanes up to the millimeter. Maintenance managers in these industries live with their equipment; they inspect and work on it during the day, they try not to think about them at night and they wake up thinking about their assets.

It should be no difference for large infrastructure such as engineering structures or buildings. The rationale is similar as in other industries; the cost of urgent repairs represents a significant downtime and failure can even cost people’s lives. However, the inspection sophistication of large infrastructure is still behind other industries such as aviation and oil & gas.

Why are there less inspection?

A first reason is that inspecting large infrastructure assets is more cumbersome. Hanging under a bridge or climbing on high roofs is a complex and dangerous task. A jet engine mechanic receives a vast amount of data measured during flight and during the maintenance he can easily access the engines of an airplane. The vast number of sensors in a chemical plant drastically reduce the inspection effort. Bart Bols, who designs bridges as a project engineer at Ney & Partner confirms this:

"Inspection and maintenance on bridges can be very complex, although we always have to design structure so that it would be easy to inspect and maintain them during their life cycle. Nevertheless for some of the inspections and maintenance a dangling inspector/workman or disturbed traffic can not be avoided."

Second, because there is less data available, the sophistication of predictive analytics is also behind other industries. After decades of accumulating flight hours on its engines, GE Aviation is able to better predict outages and steers its customers' maintenance policies to increase uptime. Furthermore, large infrastructure assets very often are unique given that they need to address a unique problem; every bridge has its specifics, every building is a bit different. Both lack of data and hetegerenosity lead to much more difficult analytics. Bart Bols illustrates the current state of how inspections on bridges are done:

“Currently most inspectors do mainly visual inspections. They rely on their expertise to determine if there is an issue and what needs to happen.”

Third, a higher number of stakeholders makes the cost-benefit assessment of large infrastructure projects more complex. Every euro spent on inspecting corrosion on pipes has a straightforward impact on the bottom line of the chemical plant. When performing thermal infrared scans to detect insulation errors on roofs, the benefits are not always for the one who owns the building or the one who constructed the building.


Drone-as-a-Service provides substantial benefits

Services based on drone data provide major benefits for infrastructure owners. The wide availability of drone equipment and drone pilots enables inspections from angles that used to be unthinkable or very expensive. Inspecting the outside of a chimney is reduced to a 1-hr drone flight compared to hiring height workers for a couple of days. The same applies for inspecting the bottom of a bridge, the facade of a building and the roof of a skyscraper. Bart Bols adds to this:

“When we design bridges, we need to take into account the maintenance cost of the bridge. We know parties that offer drone technology as an argument to convince clients in a Design, Build, Finance and Maintenance (DBFM) contracts.”

Furthermore, when considering that a drone can be mounted with different type of sensors (e.g. thermal infrared camera, multispectral) it is clear that they provide better data from a better perspective.

Drone data also allows you to build up a structured smart database of your infrastructure. Using the localization tag of the GPS, software is able to relate the vast amount of pictures taken to the right location on the inspected equipment. This allows users to combine this data with existing drawings, and to analyse the evolution of issues over time. But that's just the start, having this database allows you to apply AI algorithms to detect issues more quickly and more accurately than with traditional methods.

The numbers are not small. For instance, the Netherlands has 22 000 bridges, France 12 000 and Germany 40 000. Most bridges need a yearly inspection, however this can change depending on the state of the bridge.

What needs to happen?

Implementing drones in the inspection value chain has clear benefits, however the adoption takes time. What needs to happen to accelerate the adoption? We give our view on the key actions that the stakeholders should take.

Drone service companies need to understand that drones are not the only source of data that the end customer is using to better monitor their infrastructure and existing software to track issues exists. The winning solution based on drones will be one that integrates seemingless into existing workflows and systems, apply the right AI algorithms when there is a economic rationale and run effective drone operations.

Regulators have implemented a regulatory framework making commercial drone operations possible. The next step for regulators is to implement the procedures and systems to reduce the lead times of the administration required to operate in more complex conditions. If a pilot of a manned plane wants to fly through controlled airspace he needs to file a flight plant 30 mins before take-off. If a drone pilot wants to operate in a controlled airspace he might need to file paperwork weeks or even months in advance.

End users of drone data should embrace the upcoming technology, and should invest time of their inspection teams to assess how drone data and insights can improve their productivity. Furthermore, end users should also understand a new set of boundary conditions that comes with drone operations such as impact of controlled airspace, meteo and privacy concerns.


inFlights is a drone-as-a-service company, supporting industrial companies to improve their performance with valuable insights. inFlights unique operating model allows clients to deploy drones anytime and anywhere, to structure the data in accordance to existing equipment or infrastructure classification and to generate insights with AI algorithms.

Posted in Construction, Legal.