Drones carry our inspections quick and safely, offering advantages too for the offshore wind industry

That drones can also be useful in companies has been proven by tank storage company Vopak and Think 3D - experts in 3D scanning. These companies used drones in industrial applications such as the inspection of gas storage tanks and scanning industrial installations. And these aren't the only sectors where drones have great potential. In the field of renewables, such as onshore and offshore wind energy, the interest in using drones and UAVs is growing too.


Flying ball

The Dutch company Vopak, specialist in transporting liquid and gaseous chemical and petroleum products, recently started using drones for the inspection of large gas storage tanks. Previously, people had to climb into the tanks to inspect them, which entailed risks associated with working in confined spaces.

The company looked into the potential of airborne inspections by means of an innovative project that investigated various factors that would be involved. These included flying in closed/ confined spaces, the conditions of darkness, the level of detail that could be captured in the obtained datastreams, and full digital reporting in 3D. This is how the tank storage company came to deploy the Flyability Elios drones. This type of UAV is surrounded by a protective cage that allows it to fly right up against the walls of the tanks. The drones are fitted with a camera and a bright LED light. The operator can remain outside while following the inspection with the camera.

Vopak uses the new inspection drones in, amongst other places, its terminal in Vlissingen, in the Dutch province of Zeeland. By sending a drone into the tanks it is no longer necessary to take risks: when people carry out the inspections the special safety measures they have to take can lead to inspection tasks taking several days. The drone, on the other hand, can inspect an entire tank in just two hours. Because everything can now be done faster and more safely, inspections can be performed more often while reducing risks for workers.

To watch the film about the inspection drone, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9DGCt2CrDA

3D scanning from the air

The Belgian company Think 3D has grasped the potential of using drones to scan industrial installations more safely. By connecting a 3D scanner to a drone, the company can serve the industrial market with classic 3D scanning, both on the ground and from the air. In this way dangerous climbs, complex scaffolding and the shut-down of machinery can be avoided, and places that are difficult to reach can be mapped-out in three dimensions.

The combination of scanner and drone is the result of intensive research and developments, in which many tests were needed to obtain reliable measurements. The drone itself has eight engines, a width of 1.7 m and a lifting capacity of 30 to 40 kg. Work is still in progress to improve the stability of the drone and the accuracy of the scanner by developing software that ensures the drone to deliver results as accurately as possible. Think 3D aims to commercialise its innovative technology throughout the world. Businesses everywhere will be able to couple their scanner to the drone, whether for thermography, photogrammetry, 3D laser scanning or inspection.

The use of laser measurement technology from moving, floating or flying platforms is not new. In 2012,  OWI-Lab got involved in a test project for using LIDAR measurement technology on a floating measurement buoy that would perform accurate wind speed measurements at sea as part of the resource assessment. Applications like these called Floating Lidars require the design of a mechatronic stabilisation mechanism to ensure that it obtains the same measurements that it would if it were on a solid surface.

The many benefits of drones make them suitable to be used in places that would be difficult or dangerous to reach. This is why they have been included in the Interreg Smart Tooling project, in which Belgian technology center Sirris will also be taking part and where it will be organising an info session together with it's  project partners on the 6th of December.

Down to the sea with drones

Drones can offer many advantages in other sectors, including the offshore wind turbine industry. They can, for example, be used for inspecting the foundations and turbine blades of both onshore and offshore wind farms.

The Kempen-based company Aetos Drones, which forms part of the Maes Group, and which is specialised in tower wagons and mobile tower cranes, now also offers inspections by special drones. It is the first Belgian company to use a Fyability Elios drone.

Performing tasks (inspection, repair, maintenance, measurements, ...) in restricted, hard to reach (confined) spaces are always among the most dangerous and expensive tasks in the offshore industry. The growing number of offshore wind farms, means that there is increasing demand for these tasks. New drone solutions and integrated inspection tools might lead to more safe and efficient inspections. The use of new technologies would tackle both the risk and the high costs of such tasks. With respect to this, the OWOME - 'Offshore Wind O&M Excellence’ project has been set up, involving the OWI-Lab together with VUB and iMinds. This project is focused on improving Operations & Maintenance activities in the offshore sector and demonstrating new promising tools. In the offshore wind energy sector, maintenance and other costs can be reduced by using and developing new innovative maintenance, inspection and monitoring technologies. This also covers the evolution and use of drones and UAVs.

(Images: Vopak, Think 3D and Kasper Van Lombeek)