Operators across the dangerous goods spectrum are waking up to the safety and efficiency benefits offered by the latest generation of unmanned aerial vehicles
Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other new technologies are transforming the world we live in. While there are understandable concerns that such technologies, should they run amok, could cause untold harm but, equally, it cannot be denied that, when they are properly organised and managed, they offer enormous benefits, both to industry and to mankind as a whole.
In particular, the emerging ability to deploy autonomous vehicles and robots to replace human beings in highly hazardous operations presents the possibility of major improvements in industrial safety, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the transport and storage of dangerous goods.
The tank storage and tanker shipping industries are among those sectors that have taken a particular liking to this new wave of technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – or ‘drones’ as they are commonly called – are proving to be a big hit with terminal operators, providing increased accuracy, significant cost savings and – short of one falling on someone’s head – an much lower chance of injury to personnel.
OUT WITH THE OLD
In an age where there is a heavy focus on operational efficiency, companies are losing time and money performing manual inspections. Drones have been shown to be up to four times faster than traditional inspection methods, with oil and gas businesses reporting seven-figure savings as a result. When inspections are carried out by humans, the safety measures that have to be taken can mean that the inspection has to take place over several days. A drone, on the other hand, can inspect an entire tank in as little as two hours.
“We conducted the first UAV tank inspection in 2015 and have seen the industry embrace the technology wholeheartedly,” explains Malcolm Connolly, founder and technical director of Cyberhawk Innovations, a leading UAV inspection expert. Traditional inspection methods require scaffolding and teams of surveyors and technicians to perform visual survey and take measurements. “Naturally, there are multiple liabilities associated with this type of work, ranging from dropped objects when lowering equipment into the tank, to potential damage to the tank coating, and working at height within confined spaces,” says Connolly. “UAV inspection not only reduces these risks but also offers a quicker, cost-effective means of inspection.”
Vopak, a specialist in the storage of liquid and gaseous chemicals, adopted the use of drones in 2016 in order to eliminate the risks to its personnel associated with working in confined spaces. The company deployed Flyability Elios drones, which are surrounded by a protective cage, enabling them to fly right up against the walls of the tank without damaging either the tank or the drone itself. These types of drones have become the popular option and are normally fitted with a camera and a bright LED light in order to assist with and monitor the inspection in real time.
Avetics Global, a drone solutions company based in Singapore, creates drones for a variety of industrial uses, including visual inspection. The company has built custom in-tank drones as well as proprietary tethered drones that have an integrated power supply, giving them an unlimited fly time. Innovations like these are helping to bridge the gap between the old methods of visual scanning and confined space inspection, and modern methods using UAVs that are still being tested and adopted around the world.
UAVs have also been used in industrial markets to carry out 3D scanning, a new method of scanning large structures. By connecting a 3D scanner to a drone, not only is the 3D mapping process much safer, as nobody needs to perform any dangerous climbs, but it means that difficult-to-reach areas can be successfully mapped out, improving accuracy. For large storage tanks and barges, 3D scanning is especially beneficial as the information gathered can be used to identify true shape, geometry, deformation and locations of interior structures. Developments in drone technology are allowing a wider range of 3D laser scanners to be attached to UAVs.
Drones offer a lot of competitive advantages in other sectors as well. The maritime industry, for example, has adopted the use of drones for a variety of tasks, one of note being vessel inspection. Surveying tanks on board ships can be a risky enterprise, with enclosed cargo holds known to contain noxious and flammable gases. Cargo tanks can also sometimes be filled with water during a process known as ‘rafting’, which poses an obvious danger for anyone carrying out inspections inside the tank. Some tanks on ships are more than 25 metres deep and the use of traditional methods requires erecting large amounts of scaffolding, hung staging equipment and other specialised solutions such as portable gas detectors, all of which must meet rigorous safety standards and be checked continuously. Drones make it possible to eliminate all of these issues, streamlining the process and reducing risk significantly. From a health and safety standpoint, drones are just the logical next step. Severe injuries and fatalities are unfortunately all too common in industries where working at height is required.
For a while now, drones have also been used for humanitarian and disaster response. Fires can cause irreparable damage to infrastructure if not attended to quickly. UAVs have been put to work in terminals where the risk of fire might be higher than average and the results are quite extraordinary. Using current methods, should a fire break out on a tank farm, there are a few options that operators can utilise, but a lot of them are costly and either require the tank to be fitted with an auxiliary appliance as standard, or to have one retrofitted to the tank. All terminal operators know that fighting fires quickly and efficiently is vital, but it is not always possible to have the latest, most advanced tank equipment fitted to every tank on a farm. These systems also rely on up-to-date monitoring systems and an adequate supply of foam, for which tank fires will usually require large volumes.
Ultimately, drones have an extremely beneficial vantage point in the instance of a fire breaking out, enabling a lot of information to be gathered in a short space of time. Drones have provided a revolutionary way to monitor scenes, with 360-degree cameras providing all-encompassing surveillance and thermal cameras able to immediately pinpoint precise locations of fires, something that is especially useful at night. Additionally, the increased precision of a drone means that the affected and nearby areas can be evacuated quickly and efficiently. Due to the increased speed at which an assessment can be made, the response time of local fire departments can be decreased significantly and their time on-scene utilised more effectively.
A recent report on drone use from Goldman Sachs estimates that $881m has been spent to date on drone use in fighting fires globally and the sudden rise in popularity of drones is something for which the industrial sector has been more than thankful.
Drone technology continues to evolve rapidly and the next stage appears to involve automation. While already a comparatively quick and simple solution compared to the traditional alternative, drones have the potential to improve things yet further for tanker operators. Fully automated drones, pre-loaded with a 3D model of the ship, can make their way around the vessel without requiring a human operator, stopping at points of interest to obtain detailed video and images.
“I don’t even know of a manufacturer that creates purely remote-control drones,” says Robert Garbett, CEO of the Drone Major Group. “They are all – to some degree – autonomous, which is where the technology is going. Use of operators in maritime drone technology will reduce over time as the technology becomes more intelligent and better able to cope with the environment.”
Amazon, the global e-commerce website, is investing a lot of money and resources into the use of drones as delivery vehicles and many industrial sectors are keeping an eye on the development. The use of ‘cargo drones’ for the delivery of even quite large consigments is under investigation, even in the dangerous goods sector.
There are those who think that the use of unmanned vehicles would be a positive step when dealing with hazardous substances; on the other hand, many are wary of putting such substances in the ‘hands’ of a relatively young technology. There will certainly be no transport of dangerous goods by drone until it is permitted by regulations and there will also be insurance considerations to be taken into account.
Nevertheless, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released information regarding the future for cargo drones, stating “the industry needs to react quickly to address challenges and capture the opportunities offered by this new branch of civil aviation”.
Not everyone is convinced. The port of Shanghai, for instance, has banned all drones from entering the vicinity. China’s Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) conducted inspections on vessels entering the Yangtse and Huangpu Rivers between 15 September and 15 November. While this is not a widespread ban – nor is it a common occurrence – it does show a lack of trust in the technology as well as a hesitancy to adopt the equipment for mainstream use in the shipping industry.
Understandably, due to their complex nature, it will take time for drones to become the norm, but the progress that has been made in the past few years demonstrates industry’s desire for advancement. And a new generation of people is now entering the workforce; with young minds come new ideas. Drones may only be the beginning of what is to come for the dangerous goods industry.