Seven years ago, James Harrison was at his desk researching ideas for a business using drones. Having recently left the British army, the ex-officer was researching which industries might benefit from using unmanned craft for a company he planned to launch with two former colleagues.
As he scrolled through images of oil rigs, he was struck by a picture of a worker conducting a safety inspection at an offshore oil rig while hanging on a rope.
Mr Harrison had benefited from drone technology that helped him to navigate hostile areas during military tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. He recognised the aircraft could also improve safety on rigs.
His company, Sky-Futures, now sells drone-based inspection services to customers including Eni, the Italian oil and gas producer. The unmanned aircraft allow workers conducting inspections to stand on the structure while flying the device, rather than carrying out roped-access inspections looking for signs of wear and tear. The drones can also take videos, meaning footage can be replayed to safety inspectors.
“There’s a huge safety [cost] saving to not having a person dangling off a rope,” Mr Harrison says.
Rig examinations are just one way in which drones are changing working life. Chris Eglington, a farmer from Norfolk, uses drones made in China that cost up to £15,000 each, to inspect plants such as oilseed rape for signs of disease or environmental damage. The bright yellow crop often grows 2m high. “Once it has got to a certain stage you can’t walk through it,” Mr Eglington says. “What you can see from a drone is marvellous.”
Mr Eglington has established a company, Crop Angel, through which he and a partner offer drone-based surveying, though he says most farmers prefer to buy and fly the drones themselves.
Drones are also changing archaeology, and are used to identify ancient hidden structures all over the world. They are also being used at Fifa, a cemetery in the south of Jordan that has been looted since the 1980s by thieves for pots — dating from between 3600BC and 3200BC — that were buried in graves. Thieves sell the pots for between $200 and $300 each on the black market.
In the past, teams of archeologists patrolled on foot to protect the site. Now, drones do that work for them.
Morag Kersel, an archaeologist and anthropologist who works as an assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a field worker at Fifa, says her work begins each morning with a drone flight. That frees up time to process data and revisit areas where the footage may have thrown up anomalies. “Its really changed the pace of the project,” she says. “We can provide a map overnight.”
The drones were built from kits by a colleague. Initially, he mounted a GoPro action camera on top of the craft. Inside the body they placed a Canon S100 camera, which pointed downwards and took images every 2-3 seconds. In 2016, they added a DJI Phantom 3 — a craft available to buy online for about $500 that takes video and still images. The drones provide information on changes in soil colour, a strong indication that an area has been disturbed.
“It has changed our perception of landscape,” Prof Kersel says. “The resolution from satellite imagery wasn’t good enough for us. [Now] we can see changes that we might not have noticed on the ground.”
Drones at work have disadvantages, however. Managers must grapple with interpreting large amounts of visual information that footage from the unmanned aircraft provides. They can film the most critical parts of oil rig structures, such as flare stacks, and their footage can be replayed and pored over by engineers. But sometimes drones provide too much information.
“There is a huge volume of data,” says Philip Buchan, commercial director at Cyberhawk, whose craft inspect rigs as well as utility infrastructure such as chimneys and wind turbines. “That’s quite a big change from when previous instructions were conducted.”
Another difficulty can be recruiting suitably qualified drone pilots and data analysts. Sky-Futures and Cyberhawk have developed internal training programmes for pilots so they can work to industrial standards. This includes being able to steer the aircraft accurately.
The job is not always easy. “We’re doing all the things you’re not supposed to do — flying close to things in salty offshore conditions,” says Mr Buchan, describing typical conditions in the North Sea. But both he and Mr Harrison say drones are worth the effort.
Mr Harrison recalls navigating the streets of Baghdad during his army days armed with an old Ordnance Survey map from the early 1970s and a more recent satellite map — plus drone images of the city. It was this last set of detailed images that inspired the most confidence when navigating. “It gave us the complete picture,” he says.
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