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Why drones are the future of asset management

Aerial view of rail tracks

A joint venture of Amey and Vtol Technologies has launched a new ultra stable, long range drone which it hopes will change the way vital infrastructure, such as bridges and railways, are monitored.

Vtol managing director Ashley Bryant explained that the advantage over other types of drones is that its new hybrid technology combines fixed wing technology – aerofoil technology – with rotor blades for manoeuvrability and lift. This hybrid between the two technologies, he said, meant that it could fly for longer distances giving it the ability to be used when surveying long linear assets such as bridges, rail tracks, roads and water pipes.

“If you think about a long linear asset such as a rail network, you could have specialist launch and recovery stations along the way and these systems could fly along that line as an aerial robot inspecting the assets along the way,” he said. “They could then land, recharge and download data as appropriate.

“So you end up with the ability to fully cover the long linear asset in terms of those inspections every six months, significantly improving the quality of the data.”

Bryant also said that the technology is also a safety feature as even if power is lost, due to the aerofoil, the drone can still glide making it safer than some of the other alternatives.

To propel the 4kg craft, there are two small rotor blades on each side of the 1.3m wide drone. All four rotors can be rotated through 110° to give different combinations of lift and turning capability, meaning the drone can fly forwards, backwards and sideways.

“Because those rotors rotate we can turn it very quickly so it can also fly sideways and backwards – it’s got incredible manoeuvrability,” explained Bryant. “It can go from 65mph to hover in a matter of seconds – on the Harrier it was called vectoring in forward flight.”

In addition to its inbuilt radar technology to allow it to avoid other aircraft in the same airspace, the drone is capable of carrying infrared technology, high definition cameras, ground penetrating radar and Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology.

“It carries an exciting technology called Lidar which creates an accurate 3D map of the ground,” said Bryant. “For example, in rail, tracks shift if you get flooding or very high rainfall so if you’re able to cost effectively compare accurate data of the ground, you can begin to compare where the problems are developing.”

He said, for example, that the infrared technology could be used in the water utilities industry to identify a backlog of sewage by the dramatic change in temperature as the bacteria feeds on it.

Civil aviation authority approval has to be given to be allowed to fly drones, which is based on presenting the right safety case to the authority, he said. However, currently, drones are not allowed to fly further than line of sight which is limiting the potential of the technology. But Bryant said he hopes that the authority to go past the line of sight will be granted within the next two years, allowing the drones to fly much further.

“In terms of flight range, we’re targeting 100km at the moment purely because it’s a new technology and there are concerns about terrorism so we’re staying within Itar [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] – that’s a military framework for restricting the use of technology to stop it being used for the wrong purpose,” he explained.

“Network Rail is already using the quad doctors [drones with four rotors and no aerofoil technology] for point inspection work, but they also want to fly beyond the line of sight because that’s where the saving comes into play.”

The base stations’ “launch and recharge” stations are small units just bigger than the craft itself and can be installed along the inspection route. From the stations the drone can download its information and upload it to the cloud.

Bryant said that other applications for which the drone could be used are being uncovered frequently. He revealed that the Canadian government had recently enquired about using the infrared technology to create a heat profile of a city during different times of the day. This data, he said, could then be used to inform policy on energy usage to prevent wastage.

“This will hopefully replace tasks which are dull, dirty and dangerous,” he said. “One of the problems which you’ve got, humans find it difficult to do repetitive tasks. With this technology, every time an inspection is carried out you’re going to get the same quality levels coming through.”

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