On May 29, an electric arc explosion at a Pueblo, Colorado, steel mill left eight workers seriously injured and firefighters battling a wickedly hot fire.
When firefighters arrived, Pueblo Fire Department Assistant Chief Keith Miller reported they encountered 130 tons of steel at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Firefighters had to wait for steel inside the furnace to cool before entering the scene.
This is exactly the scenario where an indoor drone shows its true value, reports Zacc Dukowitz, content marketing manager of Flyability SA, a Swiss company that manufacturers indoor drones for public safety and industrial use.
“Drones can go into dangerous events when you are unsure of the conditions inside. They can visually survey the scene to help you determine if it’s safe for someone to enter, whether there are people inside who need rescuing, and more,” he says. “Post-event, you can use drones to gather visual data for a potential arson investigation.”
In Madrid, public safety officials used Flyability drones to inspect an apartment building that exploded after a gas leak. Drones inspected the building interior to see if any residents remained inside while officials remained safely outside.
In another application, Marine Firefighters of Marseille tested the company’s drones inside distressed boats to view a ship’s interior before dispatching firefighters. This test revealed strong signal strength on the ship’s nine decks and two engine rooms. In fact, the drone only lost signal once, when a watertight door closed between the drone and the pilot.
Indoor Vs. Outdoor Drones, and What About Robots?
But all drones are not created equal and in cases like these a traditional UAV designed for outdoor use may not work well inside.
Dukowitz shares that after a severe fire broke out at the Liverpool Echo Arena Multi-Story Car Park in 2017, the Liverpool City Council hired PCF Survey to perform a forensic investigation. Surveying the structure proved difficult because the fire had made it unstable. The parking garage also was unlit because the fire had knocked out electrical service.
PCF Survey planned to use traditional UAVs but found the lack of a GPS signal, massive quantities of debris, physical obstacles and poor lighting barred their use. The company turned to Flyability for help. Because the Elios indoor drone does not require GPS to operate, offers collision-tolerance and sits in a protective cage, it was able to survey the scene.
“Indoor drones provide significant advantages over conventional UAVs for flying in confined internal spaces,” Dukowitz says. “Collision-tolerance allows our products to bounce off surfaces. They also capture high quality visual footage. In addition, our drones do not require GPS, though most conventional drones do. This means they can still operate, even when there’s no signal. That is really important in a mine or other hard-to-access area.”
Drones also offer significant advantages over robots. Dukowitz is careful to note there are situations where robots can work better, such as to inspect small-diameter pipes or crawl spaces. “But because a drone is flying, it can get above the rubble from a fire or explosion, giving access to areas that a robot cannot get into,” he says.
Robots also crawl along the ground at much slower speeds than drones flying overhead. It’s possible to get full coverage inside an asset more quickly than a robot traveling back and forth within a structure. “With an asset that is 100-200 feet high, you couldn’t see beyond the first five feet with a robotics solution on the ground,” he says.
The Path to Revolutionize Indoor Inspections
Dr. Adrien Briod and Patrick Thevoz founded Flyability in 2014 after the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011 at the Daichi Nuclear Power Plant. The founders watched as responders sent in robots to evaluate the reactor and they kept washing away. They felt there had to be a better way to enter a confined space, collect visual data, and remain protected in a chaotic environment.
The culmination of their work was the Elios Series of indoor drones, which roll off walls and narrow spaces, and around lights and ventilation systems. The founders made the drones to handle challenging conditions; those dark, dirty and dangerous places that pose safety risks for humans and inject difficulties into inspections.
“Our drones are in a cage and that cage is part of the design, it cannot be removed,” Dukowitz says. “There is also a collision tolerance in the drone itself so that it can fly in confined spaces and collide with the wall and keep flying without it harming the drone.”
Elios Series drones also offer bright lighting and oblique lighting features. Elios 2, for example, provides 10,000 lumens of light and its oblique lighting feature reveals pitting, cracks and build ups. The drones also can operate in extremely high temperatures, Dukowitz says.
Flyability drones first gained popularity in industrial inspections but are now moving into fire and police work. “Our biggest use cases are for industrial inspections in the oil and gas industry,” he says. “Our drones inspect tanks that store oil or gas, and they are used to perform pressure vessel and boiler inspections. We’ve also seen them used to inspect chimneys and stacks.”
Using drones in these applications can reduce inspection costs in dangerous indoor environments. Though someone must operate the drone, spotters outside the structure are no longer needed and scaffolding needs are reduced. Drone inspections also slash downtime as drones can perform inspections more quickly than humans.
“The ROI is often over 100 times the cost of the drone in one application,” Dukowitz says. “In an industrial application, scaffolding might cost $100,000 for one inspection and downtime might cost $1 million a day. If you can reduce downtime by two days and not need scaffolding, you have more than paid for the drone.”
Safety improves by keeping workers a safe distance away from boilers, tanks, stacks or the interior of nuclear power facilities. Video captured by the drone’s thermal imaging camera livestreams to devices in the hands of incident commanders and other key personnel. “Our drones allow multiple parties to view footage from different locations at the same time,” he says.
He adds, “The situational awareness a drone provides in a fire offers tremendous value. You cannot put a price on losing a drone versus losing a person.”
Training the Operator
Indoor drones can be expensive, which causes some potential users to shy away from them. The Elios 2, for example, starts at $35,000. That amount includes training because whether flown indoors or outside, a drone’s remote pilot needs a certain comfort level and skill to fly in a dangerous and stressful environment.
Flyability offers one-day, in-person training that allows future operators to perform standard inspections from the first flight. This training is available in person or online.
The company’s Aerial Indoor Inspection Methodology Training teaches operators to plan and execute inspections with advanced practices regarding flying in complex indoor environments. Flyability training personnel teach pilots to ensure full coverage whether inspecting a vessel, gathering situational awareness during a fire, or conducting a post-fire inspection. Pilots learn to roll the drone along walls or on ceilings to close in on areas they want to scan. They also master the drone’s distance-lock feature to keep it a safe distance from obstacles.
Indoor Photogrammetry Training trains operators to use drones in building 3D models of indoor spaces. This training course focuses on learning how to define and execute data capture flight plans that offer the highest success rate when processed with photogrammetry software. It mixes plenary sessions on photogrammetry basics with practical exercises on software and flight techniques.
In the past, when video inspections showed an issue inside a tank or structure, the operators had to return to video footage and count rivets or other landmarks to locate specific findings. Flyability corrects this with Inspector 3.0 software, which allows operators to pinpoint inspection data on a blueprint.
“The software creates a 3D model that shows exactly where a defect is in an asset,” he says. “This 3D model is usually available within 20 to 30 minutes. Customers can do a 30-day trial of the software to see if it’s a good fit for their operation.”
When flying drones in an outdoor setting, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires pilots to go through FAA Part 107 Pilot Certification. (Find more information about FAA certification there: https://faadronezone.faa.gov). Though the FAA does not require Part 107 certification for indoor drones, Dukowitz recommends it.
“If you’re going to start or stop your mission outside, you need a Part 107 certified pilot. You do not need a Part 107 certification to fly indoors,” he says. “But it’s not a bad idea if you are concerned about compliance. Let’s say the drone flies through a door to the outside in a burned building. You would need Part 107 certification to stay in compliance.”
Award Winning Product
Airwards recognized Flyability as the winner in the Survey and Inspection category in its Confined Space Inspection Drones awards.
The honor is well deserved. Over the last year, Flyability has reported on the use of its indoor Elios drones in the ice caves of Greenland, an abandoned nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, and a dam being built at over a mile high in the Swiss Alps.
Besides these unique missions, inspectors have used Flyability’s Elios 2 for crucial inspection work across multiple industries, saving companies millions in inspection costs and reduced downtimes, and eliminating thousands of hours of dangerous confined space entry for inspectors.
Learn more about Flyability products for public safety applications at https://www.flyability.com/