Having workers physically climb and enter confined spaces puts life and limb on the line. Using scaffolding or cherry pickers to reach high or difficult-to-access areas is not exactly an efficient way to run multi-million-dollar operations. Add this to the high chances of the human eye ‘missing spots’ that could have been attended to early and prevent costly equipment failure down the road.

Siemens recently highlighted a worrying trend among Fortune Global 500 industrial companies, pointing to nearly $1.5 trillion lost annually due to unplanned downtime. This figure, which accounts for about 11% of their unplanned downtime, is a big jump from the prior estimate of $864 billion – showing the escalating costs and urgency for efficient maintenance strategies​​​​.

Then there is the spectrum of indirect expenses, including labor costs for idle workers, missed deadlines resulting in reputational damage, and potential penalties for delayed deliveries.

The financial repercussions are so substantial that even a single hour of downtime can range from $39,000 to over $2 million depending on the industry affected. Sectors like automotive and oil & gas in particular have seen a drastic escalation in hourly downtime costs over recent years.

Drones are proving to be a valuable asset to aid in this.

Drones and their applications in different Industries

Energy Sector 

Inspection and surveillance of critical utilities like oil, gas, and power generation are increasingly being carried out with drones. They are particularly beneficial in assessing hard-to-reach structures such as chimneys, refineries, powerlines, and offshore platforms. 

Investment in UAV technology within this niche is on the rise, with average spending on drone programs exceeding $10,000, and many companies investing between $50,000 and $100,000. In fact, energy companies alone are expected to account for around $6 billion of the commercial drone market by 2026.

Axpo Grid, a Swiss company specialising in renewable energy, has observed a remarkable 40% surge in operational efficiency through the deployment of drones for conducting visual inspections and improving services. Additionally, drones equipped with thermal cameras are being used in cities and towns to detect energy leaks in buildings.

Warehouse Management

Drones in “smart” warehouses are upping the ante in inventory management by performing tasks such as reading RFID labels and barcodes, conducting inventory audits, and assisting in cycle counting​​. They also come in handy for routine inspections, assessing equipment, shelving, racks, ceilings, and roofs​.

Companies like GEODIS are already experimenting with drones in their warehouses. They use indoor geolocation technology to navigate autonomously and safely within the premises, scanning barcodes on pallets – and the data is then fed in real-time into the management systems. This enables fully automated inventory handling during non-operational hours, thereby enhancing productivity and safety​​.

Construction

Building checkups – from the facades to the roofs, can now be done within a fraction of the time. Engineers use them to detect structural issues, such as cracks or weak points, in tough spots without putting personnel at risk, and with the welcome benefit of slashing operational costs. Drones equipped with thermal imaging can identify heat leaks or insulation gaps in buildings, contributing to energy efficiency.

Mining

Companies rely on the UAVs for site surveying, stockpile monitoring, and equipment inspection. They offer a safe and efficient way to monitor open-pit mines, track production, and manage assets. The high-quality volumetric information you get from the drones enables managers predict profits and audit results in mineral operations. Integrating the drone-collected data into existing workflows and software ensures detailed and precise measurements, critical for efficient mining operations​.

Transportation

This covers everything from roads and railways to the tunnels they burrow through. UAVs help in monitoring the condition of infrastructure, identifying potential hazards, and planning maintenance activities efficiently. For instance, bridge inspections, traditionally done using large and costly snooper trucks, are now being replaced by UAVs. These drones reduce the inspection costs by up to 75%, are unaffected by traffic, and are environmentally friendly. The US Senate actually introduced the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant (DIIG) Act, proposing a $100 million allocation for such tasks.

Telecommunications

Drones provide a safer and more cost-effective solution for regular maintenance checks of communication towers and antennas, reducing the need for technicians to perform risky climbs. They can autonomously survey towers, capturing detailed images, videos, measurements, and readings – and this is already being done by companies like AT&T and Verizon for their cell towers and assessing signal strength across regions.

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Implementing drone programmes into your maintenance processes

Planning and Implementation

Start with a clear understanding of your goals. What tasks do you want to streamline? What kind of sensors and imaging tools will you need? Will the drones be used indoors, or be exposed to wet and windy conditions during operations? The UAVs are not one-size-fits-all; each has its strengths, so look at its endurance, payload capacity, IP rating, or data processing capabilities.

When budgeting, don’t just look at the upfront cost of the drone. Factor in training for your team, maintenance for the equipment, and any maintenance management solutions for data analysis. Regulations also come into play. In the US, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates specific guidelines for commercial drone operations, so ensure your operations are compliant to avoid hefty fines or operational delays.

Data Management and Analysis

Advanced software can transform raw data into detailed 3D models, heat maps, or even predictive insights, highlighting potential maintenance issues before they become actual problems. This is essential for strategic planning, helping you spot trends, track maintenance history, and make data-driven decisions for future operations. For the data storage, whether it’s on local servers or cloud-based, ensure it’s secure and scalable.

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