Last Thursday saw the successful delivery of the first edition of Commercial UAV Expo Europe in Brussels, Belgium. Following the keynotes, I wrote about how the Expo was clearly designed to highlight industrial applications where UAVs are being thought of and positioned as just another tool. That focus on the operational requirements for commercial users resonated in each presentation, because stakeholders are more focused than ever around the business benefits this technology can provide. That wasn’t my only takeaway from the event though.
An Increasingly Mature Market
After attending both editions of Commercial UAV Expo Americas, I was keen to understand what differences there might be with the first European edition of the event. Generally speaking, in North America we have seen an increase year-over-year of the maturity of the professional market, but the maturity of this European market was evident in a different way. The increased length in time that professional flight regulations have been in place in many European countries could be seen both in terms of the topics discussed by enterprise-level providers and users of UAV services.
For example, Mantas Vaskela of Laserpas illustrated what it has meant for them to cover more than 3000km of power line networks so far. Their established processes and protocols for employing beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) operations for powerline inspection across Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania is proof of how developed this market has become already, and provides just a hint at the potential we’ll be able to see with it.
Asset Integrity – A Case Study in Actionable Information
The benefits UAVs provide in terms of cost savings and being able to effectively capture data were discussed in great detail at Commercial UAV Expo Europe, but many of the attendees were looking for specific information around where and how these tools could make a difference. That was information that Colin Hickey from Sky-Futures laid out as he discussed the drivers in an asset integrity environment. He explained why workflow and understanding of operational context are required to make the information gleaned through increased drone flights truly actionable. He laid out how and why drones can help stakeholders take action.
Whether the asset in question is the safety guardrails on a flare stack or blades on a wind turbine, an asset manager will always face decisions about when and where to invest dollars in the maintenance strategies and associated treatments during the lifecycle of the asset. For example, decisions include whether to invest maintenance budget in a preventative manner before small problems become bigger and costlier later. Alternatively, if that asset is deemed to be functionally performing without further investment, the decision could be made to not take any preventative measures, which could allow that asset to operate until it fails.
Increased data about the condition of an asset can clearly help with an asset manager’s decisions. This data might be collected through traditional means from inspection personnel in the field, or from UAV flights. The stages of an inspection and maintenance regime from data collection, through data sorting to analysis and finally to taking action, will each have their own monetary and time budgets. Colin explained how images collected by a UAV are not directly actionable, because that data needs to be sorted and interpreted. That’s time that could otherwise be spent taking action.
Sky-Futures places an emphasis on the machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) regimes in their workflow that reduces the time required for sorting and analysis of data. While recognizing that there is still some way to go in the state-of-the-art of machine learning and AI, Colin illustrated that less time can be spent on low value activities such as data sorting and more time devoted to creating actionable information. This enables asset manager themselves to spend less time sorting data and more time taking action based on what that data is telling them.
Data might very well be the new oil, and that means we’ve got to be more focused on refining it than what we’re using to gather it.
Importance of Applying Domain-expertise Ahead of the UAV
Decisions around where and when to act have to be based on data, and UAVs can represent a more effective and powerful way to gather that data. Just gathering that data isn’t enough though, and that was a concept that was echoed in numerous presentations. Users need to know how and where they’re going to utilize that information to take action.
The benefits that UAVs bring to reducing data collection costs, increasing the frequency of data collection, and enabling data to be collected that perhaps could not have been before, are well established. If we want the information collected by UAVs to be truly actionable, solutions need to be driven by teams that have a background around where UAV-based tools are being applied. Development resources need to be focused to best apply the domain expertise that would be used regardless of whether a UAV is present at all.
This technology moves incredibly quickly, and I imagine we’re going to see a lot of new tools and techniques that were launched and rolled out at this event at Commercial UAV Expo Americas later this year. Here’s hoping we’ll continue to see a focus on applications of this technology, because that’s what’s truly going to change things.