Drones for enclosed spaces

Every year people die inspecting enclosed spaces. These spaces can contain depleted oxygen levels, toxic gases, and/or material otherwise unsafe for humans. Using drones for this work will enhance safety and reduce costs. Drone-based solutions for the inspection of enclosed spaces consist of sending drones into void spaces, duct keels, ballast and potable water tanks, or cargo and storage tanks, for mapping, surveying, sniffing, the identification of structural weaknesses (such as rust and dents) and measuring the thickness of paint and the thickness of the tank walls (often steel). 

Enclosed space inspections on ships alone are estimated to cost $279mn globally/year.[1,2] For land-based inspections, drones working a single day can do what three workers need three days to complete, without requiring any suspension of operations. Furthermore, drones can survey spaces that people cannot access, or only access through scaffolding, and drones are faster to acquire, transmit, and report data.

As the use and application of drones increase, the manufacturing costs of high capability drones will decrease. The real value in the future will be generated by those offering drone-based services. Drone operators will undertake work for firms, and consultants will analyze the data flows. Value will come from the software, advanced sensor technologies, and special applications, rather than from the drone hardware. Programming, software, data, and flying operations, are expected to amount to 80% of the total economic impact from drones in 2035.[3]

A real game changer may come when drones can perform tasks autonomously, where trained pilots are not needed. For maritime and offshore applications, drone developers are targeting oil and gas companies for infrastructure inspection and monitoring, while application for enclosed spaces is forthcoming. The implementation of drones for inspecting enclosed spaces is not easy, due to the special requirements in regards to safety because of the risk of explosion that requires certification, and that the navigation of tight spaces requires precision.

When will enclosed space inspection by drones become an accepted practice in maritime and offshore operations? 

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[1] Scheffler, D., Lee, B., Conopask, J., (2014), Costs of Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture Services.
[2] EMSA, (2019), The world merchant fleet - statistics from Equasis.
[3] SESAR, (2016), European Drones Outlook Study.
More information:
Martek Marine, (2018), How drone technology is improving safety in the maritime industry.
Snow, C., (2019), Seven Trends That Will Shape The Commercial Drone Industry In 2019.
Poon, L., (2015), Chinese Pilots Are in High Demand—For Drones.
Grupo One Air, (2020), Drone Pilot Jobs: A Profession with Thousands of Job Opportunities.

By Matthew J. Spaniol