Using drones in confined space inspection

By Jason De Silveira*
Friday, 10 May, 2019 | Supplied by: Nexxis Equipment Hire

Inspections in confined spaces have always posed a significant challenge for industries and they often come at significant cost, but a solution could come from an unlikely source — a drone.

Confined space inspections can be slow, dangerous and costly. When human entry is involved, some of the risks and challenges include:

  • Personnel may be exposed to hazardous substances.
  • Risk of fire or explosion.
  • Inadequate oxygen for inspectors.
  • Challenging physical conditions can limit or restrict the technician’s ability to handle the test equipment.
  • Costly downtime of the asset under inspection.
  • Costs involved in preparing the site under inspection and enabling access (eg, scaffolding may be required etc).

While surface-mounted robotic devices (crawlers, climbers and tractor cameras) are generally seen as the way of the future for confined space inspections in industries such as power generation, oil and gas, water management, brewing, chemical, facilities, construction and shipping, the development of specially designed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) opens up a whole new avenue of thought.

At first glance, the idea seems impossible.

Don’t drones need open spaces? Don’t they crash if they collide with something? What about turbulence inside the space? Dust or hazardous gases? Doesn’t the operator have to maintain visual contact with the drone? What about maintaining signal transmission? Wouldn’t reflective surfaces inside the spaces have a negative impact on the quality of images or video collected?

The concept of a drone flying deep into the recesses of confined spaces where there’s no light and probably complex internal geometry seems like fantasy, but it is, in fact, a reality.

Several organisations are investigating the use of drones for confined space inspections with Swiss company Flyability, recording positive successes with its innovative designs. Its Elios inspection UAV was designed specifically to perform indoor visual and thermal inspections in confined spaces with engineers using specific flight algorithms, advanced sensor technologies and special onboard LED lighting, thermo vision camera and transmission systems.

Applications include boilers, sewers, tanks, stacks, ducts, sumps and culverts with a diversity of industries from mining and civil to maritime and mining standing to benefit from this rapidly evolving technology.

A key advantage of the Elios drone is its use of gyroscope technology to enable it to manoeuvre around and inspect complex geometries without causing any damage to the sensors or any other component part. A carbon fibre decoupling system between the drone itself and the outer cage creates a protective ‘ball’ which renders the device collision-tolerant in flight.

Other advantages of drones for confined space inspections include:

  • Asset immobilisation can be reduced by up to 90%.
  • Significant reduction in cost and time involved in accessing the confined spaces (eg, scaffolding, rope access etc).
  • Faster inspections.
  • Reduced labour costs.
  • Reduced risk to personnel (hazardous spaces, toxic gases, liquid and chemicals, heights etc).
  • Device can be controlled beyond the operator’s line of sight.
  • Detailed real-time information from high-resolution sensors and cameras.
  • Ease of transport.

While there is still a way to go, there are several drone options already on the market which are being used successfully for confined space inspections. These devices are getting ‘cleverer’ all the time and many experts believe that the technology could ultimately be the most popular solution for unmanned entry into hazardous confined spaces.

*Jason De Silveira is Director for Nexxis.

Image credit: ©

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