- Photo courtesy of Charles Werner.

Photo courtesy of Charles Werner.

Chemical plants have unique characteristics that may involve massive processing equipment, dangerous substances used in processing and secure areas within the property.

Drones can be flown periodically to monitor activity on the premises, conduct routine inspections of the infrastructure, monitor for hazardous materials release, perform thermal imaging inspections of hazardous containers, maintain perimeter security and conduct damage assessments resulting from an onsite incident or from storm damage.

Bulk oil tank facilities, oil and gas platforms, refineries and similar facilities are using drones for routine inspection, release detection (liquid spill/gas), facility security and damage assessment.

Drones also afford these facilities the ability to conduct more frequent inspections that can be used to identify trends, repair inefficient processes and be more productive. Numerous reports indicate that significant money (in the billions of dollars) is spent annually to monitor these processes and that drones can do the same monitoring better, more frequently, and at a fraction of the cost.

Using drones in pipeline inspection provides many similar benefits and uses as the energy sector. In addition to periodic inspection of the pipeline infrastructure, drones can also use sensors to detect a release from the pipeline resulting from a leak.

Over the past several years, pipelines have also become a volatile issue to the point of protests and possibility of intentional damage, making drones especially useful for periodic security monitoring. And like the other examples, drones are being used following natural disasters for damage assessment.

Keeping Nuclear Reactors Secure

Nuclear reactor facilities could fall under several categories, but because of their unique radioactive nature they deserve a separate look.

Drones provide an easy way to conduct routine inspections and, combined with artificial intelligence (AI), can detect irregularities with facilities and violation of restricted areas. Most importantly, they can assist with site security, monitor for radioactivity and conduct damage assessment following a disaster.

Drones are now significantly impacting warehouse and inventory operations as they can perform package delivery to a designated point. Additionally, drones can maintain inventory and perform security patrols as well as routine property inspections. In some cases, a combination of ground drone robots and aerial drones have significantly reduced the necessity of human employees.

In the energy sector, the value of drones became very apparent for inspecting electrical power plants, utility lines, and towers, and doing damage assessment following a storm. Drones could be launched to inspect utility lines and towers more quickly and safely while incurring far less costs. Drones with specific sensors could also detect electrical "leakage" that may be caused by a damaged insulator, component and/or power lines.

Railroads could now conduct routine inspection of railroad yards, viewing the railroad train rails as well as status of rail cars. During emergencies or derailments, drones provide the means to fly autonomously and conduct train crash reconstruction and 3D modeling of the crash.

Looking Ahead

Currently, drones are impacting just about every industrial, commercial and public safety vertical. It would be difficult if not impossible to list every possible way that drones could be used. However, almost every day, we learn new ways that drones are being used to enhance operational effectiveness, efficiency and, most importantly, safety. As the technology continues to evolve and improve and users can operate beyond a visual line of sight, drone usage will continue to expand at an exponential factor. 

Charles Werner is the fire chief emeritus of the Charlottesville (Virginia) FD. He is also chairman of the National Council on Public Safety UAS and International Public Safety Association UAS Committee.