Talkin’ Tech – Applications of Drone Technologies in the Global Water Sector
Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are smart technology devices that fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems. Thanks to advancements in sensors, GPS navigation, and 3G/4G/5G telecommunications, drones have gained tremendous popularity among commercial and domestic applications over the past decade.
This exciting technology is diverse and innovative, contributing to the dramatic take-up and adoption of Drones in industrial, commercial, and recreational settings around the globe. This explains why the global drone market will grow to $42.8 billion by 2025 with expanding markets through Asia, India, and the Americas with ever-expanding uses including:
- Aerial photography
- Express shipping and delivery
- Disaster management
- Geographic mapping
- The building, construction, safety inspections, and insurance
- Intelligent agriculture
- Sports, education, event management, and tourism
- Law enforcement and border control surveillance
- Storm tracking and forecasting
To help us learn more, WaterStart has invited a guest expert, Robert Sutton, Managing Director of Mirragin Unmanned Systems, to share his insights and knowledge about the benefits and challenges of employing drone technology within the water sector.
Benefits across industry sectors are significant, but if we turn our attention to drones in the water sector, immediate benefits are apparent to employee safety and efficiency dividends.
“For water management, the primary benefits of employing drone programs are that it reduces the risk to people involved in the inspection and management of water assets, and it allows much more to be done. Drones can reach areas that previously couldn’t be reached, and they can perform monitoring and inspection of water infrastructure faster and more frequently. Data gathered by the drone can also be used to improve the management of assets, helping to identify problems before they occur. Ultimately, this has the effect for water utilities of improving service delivery and water quality to the communities they serve”, says Robert.
With advancements in camera, flight stability, 3D modeling, and Artificial Intelligence, asset condition monitoring has taken on a whole new meaning. Through the use of high definition cameras, the technology can pick up the smallest hairline cracks and defects on an asset and translate thousands of images and through artificial intelligence accurately predict failures and improve asset maintenance planning.
One of the latest advancements being adopted by drone operators is the use of high sensitivity infrared (IR) cameras referred to as Thermography. A thermographic camera can scan in-service assets and determine their temperature distribution which is a valuable diagnostic for hot spot identification, leak detection, and non-visual water ingress detection. If visual and thermal perspectives are combined in one inspection the savings of time, cost and effort, and safety are exponential.
Additionally, drones can easily conduct complex geographical surveys in areas such as river banks, channels, farmland, and treatment location, whereby changes to geography, topography can be monitored and analyzed. The key to the benefits lies in the high-quality Images provided by the technology that when coupled with Artificial Intelligence enable faster, better, cheaper outcomes for water managers and consumers.
As progressive technology, Drones hit the mark in the water sector for many uses. That said, there are multiple barriers to uptake.
“The Water sector faces a range of unique challenges. For under-water applications using remotely operated vehicles, challenges include low visibility, difficult access and poor communications. For above-ground infrastructure where unmanned aircraft can be used, difficulties include long distances in remote areas”, says Robert.
Advancing drone technologies, as popular as they may be, must stay within the confines of ethical boundaries of height, visibility, and speed. As such regulators around the globe are investigating and implementing new laws and regulations to protect both drone operators and the public particularly by way of insurances for physical and psychological harm. This can occur when a drone is either in the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) or operated beyond visible line of sight (BVLOS) and due to loss of control, loss of signal, technical error, the drone causes some level of harm to person(s) or infrastructure. Because drones can be used in numerous ways (above ground, below ground) the changing landscape of regulation is one to watch and it’s for this reason that licensed, skilled operators are used in the water sector to ensure all regulations are complied with.
Because drones have extensive capabilities, they can capture large amounts of data and images and are an ideal subject for security breaches. Exploitation by unscrupulous individuals is a fact of life and the drone industry has turned its attention to ensuring data security remains at the forefront of the technology by way of end-to-end encryption, data authentication, and firewall protection. Again, this should be one of the key attributes of a licensed drone operator, applying the relevant security standards prior to operation.
“As with any digital technology, there is the potential for data breaches and security risks. Modern drones often have embedded security measures such as end-to-end encryption, data authentication, and firewall protection to ensure that all data is collected and stored safely and securely. These tools act as key safety measures to ensure that any risks associated with drone technology can be practically managed to enable broader technology adoption. However, good security and data management don’t just happen: It must be carefully considered as part of the implementation of a drone program” adds Robert.
Autonomous drones are on a similar flight path to autonomous vehicles, meaning the technology is present and advancing but take-up will require additional proof relevant to safety, obstacle navigation, and ethical uses. For this to occur, public support will need to be garnished and ethical standards adhered to.
“We are seeing that the primary barrier to implementing drone programs is a lack of demand. The first step for many organizations is to buy a basic drone, and explore how it could be used. Many organizations get stuck there because the drone doesn’t do what they want it to. An effective drone program first requires a good understanding of the problem you want to solve: you can then make sure that the right technology is purchased to solve the problem, and that the drone program is appropriately supported to ensure it remains fit for purpose in the long term”, said Robert.
“Despite such challenges, we are definitely seeing an increase in interest and uptake of drone technologies across the sector. These technologies enable a reduction in costs, better capability to conduct monitoring and inspections, and an improvement in safety – why send a diver to inspect an underwater pipe when a remotely operated vehicle can do it with much less risk?”
“There will be more drones, there will be larger drones and they will be able to be used in more places. Importantly, increasingly drones will be “business as usual”, which will mean that they need to be smoothly integrated into existing business practices and tools. In order to get technology which “just works” with existing systems, organizations will need to deliberately plan and implement their drone programs. This will require some upfront effort to understand the problem to be solved and the ways in which the data flow throughout an organization to enable better decision making” says Robert.
Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually shown to benefit the droning industry. “The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing trends” said Robert. “Organisations have seen how drones have been used to fight the pandemic. This has included using drones to communicate with at-risk people through loudspeakers, to spray disinfectant, and to monitor safety. This has prompted thoughts around how drones might help achieve other business outcomes”.
He adds, “We’ve seen an even greater requirement for remote-based technologies to be integrated into both business and the wider community. With a need for socially distant operations to continue, there has been large investment into drone SMEs and start-ups, particularly in the areas of delivery, management of assets, and surveying”
Drones and their associated technologies enable safer, faster, cheaper ways to obtain relevant data for water and wastewater management. They have made their way into the water sector with abundant benefits but the next phase of their evolution and long term success will be determined by the improvements they can make to human safety and efficiency whilst raising the standard as a mission-critical business and technology enabler.
About Mirragin Unmanned Systems
Inspired by the potential of drone technology to keep people safe from harm, Mirragin Unmanned Systems was founded by Robert Sutton, an Aviation Engineer who was pivotal in the formation of the Australian Army’s drone program. Robert and his team have since become industry experts in the implementation of unmanned aircraft systems and remotely operated vehicles in a range of applications.
Since its formation, Mirragin has grown to work alongside leading organizations across various industries to develop drone programs for positive and proactive uses. The company is also a proud member of the Australian Association of Unmanned Systems and has signed The Soldier On Pledge to demonstrate their continued support of the community.
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