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Succeeding with using drones/UAVs to optimize maintenance operations, in 4 steps.

A practical look at getting started with in-sourced drone operations.

This article builds on the premise, that using drones for maintenance inspections, provides significant value.

If you are looking to harvest the value of drones for your own organization, you are in the right place. Frequent inspections and predictive maintenance goes hand in hand, and UAVs are the way to go if keeping costs low is a priority.

1. Start yesterday

70% of all utilities are already using drones as part of their operations.

Start small

When trying to change the ways of a large organization, you will experience push-back. Even if management OK’s your project, colleagues might have concerns about your project’s implications.

Your first job is to prove the concept with concrete results. A common mistake is thinking, that you need to implement drones on a semi-large scale, to see results. This is what gets most projects shot down before they even take flight. Not a lot of companies are willing to risk a big investment, without concrete proof of concept first.

Luckily, it is both easy and inexpensive to prove the Return On Investment (ROI) for drone inspections. The plan laid out here, focuses on taking small steps towards a big goal, and makes it manageable to start implementing drones into your utility’s operations. There’s no time to waste; You should have started yesterday.

Beachhead

The beachhead strategy focuses on a small part of the beach and conquers that, before taking the whole beach. Translated: implement your strategy for one small part of operations, prove ROI and then expand.

Your first task is to find your beachhead. Keep in mind, that this project is aimed at proving a concept, so pick your case based on that premise. Ask yourself:

Reliability will often be a great area, to look for a beachhead in. Since your goal is to get the best possible ROI (ie. biggest improvement), identifying the worst-performing isolated area of operations, is your best bet.

Once you have chosen the perfect starting point, consider how you will measure ROI. Pick one (or more) parameters, make a status of the starting point(s), and you are ready to fly.

Well, almost. You don’t need much to start flying, but there are a few things, you should sort out first.

The essentials you do need

This is the bare minimum needed, to get started with flying inspections. If done right, you can keep the costs below $5000. Once you compare that price to the potential ROI, it would be hard for anyone to turn your project down.

Cheap drone

When looking for a drone, look for one that has exactly what you need. No more.
You can get a commercial-grade multi-rotor drone for next to nothing today. DJI has a large range of models, and you can use their quiz, to find the best one for you. If you want to look beyond DJI, this TechRadar Article covers the best drones of 2019.

Pilot

Once you have a drone, you need to find a pilot. Or maybe it should be the other way around. Regardless of the sequence, you need someone to fly the actual job. Though most commercial drones are quite easy to fly, your pilot needs to be certified among other things. This article gets into the nitty-gritty of those requirements.

Software

If capturing data is laying the foundation, transforming that data into actionable insights, is building your castle. You won’t get any further, with just a folder full of high-resolution imagery.

You need to analyse those images and annotate the faults in them. Doing this manually becomes a lot easier with the right software for the job. Though some of your colleagues might be scared of losing their jobs to drones, this part of Your operation will only grow and create more analysis jobs.

Once you have analysed all your data, share your findings with the relevant team, for them to correct faults. A plus of the high-resolution images that drones capture, is that they make spotting the exact defect really easy. Resultantly, repair teams can see exactly what needs repairing or replacement.

Frequent inspections will lead to more frequent repairs; more work, but also more efficient work. It can increase asset lifetime significantly while saving both time and downtime.

Find a beachhead. Fly the mission. Process the data.

2. Providing proof of concept

Mission flow, data processed. Now it’s time to do the math. Hopefully, you will have a solid ROI to present.

If you can back that up with more numbers, and ways your data can positively impact operations, you have an even better case for expanding drone operations in your Utility.

Data

Making your data available to as many departments of the organization as possible is critical. It allows all departments to make more informed decisions, based on current data. Make sure to store this data somewhere easily accessible to all the departments, that need to access it.

Once you start collecting data regularly, your Utility will be able to use it for predictive maintenance and risk mitigation.

The added advantage of having better inspection data is that repairs become much cheaper. Being able to effectively identify a faulty part, means you can replace just that part, whereas you might earlier have had to replace an entire section of the asset. Early detection of eroding parts, makes adding to the assets lifetime highly realistic.

The safety factor

Another strong argument for using unmanned vehicles in hard-to-reach places is the added safety they provide. The benefits of spending fewer man-hours in dangerous conditions are obvious. Add to this, that having knowledge of the state of an asset, before accessing it, means workers can go in prepared. This further reduces the risk for them, when making repairs.

All together, drones used for inspections means less time spent in dangerous conditions, and a higher level of awareness of the dangers, for the time that is spent there.

When using drones as opposed to traditional inspection methods, assets are inspected much more frequently and you can start building enough historic data, to work effectively with predictive maintenance. This, in terms, means that more faults are detected. More faults obviously lead to more man-hours needed for repairs and analysis. Essentially, you are moving hours away from dangerous inspection jobs and spending them on safer tasks, which results in less down-time. 

Numbers from a ‘proof of concept’-project inspecting power-lines at a major cooperative.

– Inspections carried out 88% faster on average
– Each pole inspected in 10 seconds with drone vs. 15 minutes for lineman
– Whole process of inspection was at least 80% cheaper with a drone
– Return on investment was 97% for the first year

3. Laying the foundation for scaling.

Hopefully, your ‘proof of concept’-project ensured an investment in expanding drone operations in your Utility. If it did, the next steps to take, are towards laying a foundation for a scalable operation.

Essentially, you are just continuing where you left off. Only now, you have more people and a larger budget.

There are a few ‘best practices’ to keep in mind during this process.

Diving deeper into your assets

Once you start inspecting regularly, you can increase the level of detail, with which you analyse the data, moving into the predictive maintenance focus.

These are the logical steps to take, moving from superficial to more in-depth inspections. Keep in mind, that the actual inspection-process is the same, but what you look for during analysis, varies

Each step down the list will likely need a proof of concept project. Luckily, you already know how to do that.

It appears we have come full circle. I guess there is nothing left to say but: grow, grow, grow!

Words of wisdom
– Keep visions big but take small manageable steps to get there.
– Choose a beachhead, prove the ROI and expand.
– Do it; start now.
– Even $5000/a month is enough.
– Crawl, walk, run methodology.
– Learn as you go.

We’re always here for advice.


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