Guest Column | January 10, 2019

Drones Flying Below Your Feet

By Marc Gandillon


These robots aren’t taking jobs — they’re simply making the job of utility workers safer and easier.

The inherent dangers for workers maintaining the country’s water and wastewater systems are a daily focus for system administrators. Given the risks of working with chemicals, operating in confined spaces, and potential for exposure to contagions, basic personal safety equipment has long been a key component of industry best practices and mandates. Over the years, technological advances have also been brought to bear on workers’ well-being, and one of the most impactful areas of advancement has been the use of unmanned equipment for inspections. The last few years have seen an ever-increasing rise of drone technology for the water sector, and 2019 is expected to be another landmark year for innovative drone deployments.

Drones Are Everywhere In The Water System

Reliance on drone technology in the water and sewer sector certainly is not a new concept. For years, crawling drones have brought live video feeds from the deep. Some of those crawlers are even outfitted to cut pipes, weld seams, and more. Many departments are also reliant on swimming drones (or ROVs — remotely operated vehicles) for investigating reservoir activity below the waterline or for inspecting potable water tanks — an area that has demonstrated great efficiencies while keeping workers from entering the dangerous confines of those systems. The rapid proliferation of video-capable aerial drones and increasingly smart data-analysis programs has also transformed how engineers generate surveys and 3D maps.

As system engineers have come to trust these tools, new advancements are continuing to make drones easier to use, while dynamic sensor arrays have greatly diversified the actionable data drones can collect. All of this combines to make drone platforms safer and more efficient inspection solutions for water system components than traditional human observations.

Inspecting Confined Spaces With An Aerial Drone

One area of drone deployment that is expected to see continued evolution in 2019 is the use of flying drones in confined spaces. Shedding the tethered CCTV connection, collision-tolerant aerial drones such as Flyability’s Elios are ideal for inspection of confined spaces like potable water tanks, sewer tunnels, and large-diameter pipes with an air gap. With a payload of high-resolution and infrared cameras along with powerful LEDs, and a protective cage surrounding the entire drone, the airborne platform can roll and bounce off obstacles and obstructions to send a live feed back to the operator’s screen and log a recording of the footage for future use.

In one example, storm damage collapsed a coastal wastewater tunnel in Barcelona and responding engineers found themselves dealing with 500 cubic meters per second of raw sewage pouring into the sea. With heavy flow making the section unsafe for visual inspection, contractors were called to the emergency, where they flew a drone into the damaged pipe to pinpoint the extent of the collapse. Not only did the drone keep workers from entering a dangerous situation, but engineers also were able to realize the actionable data they needed to respond to the emergency much quicker.

Are The Latest Drones Right For Your Water System?

There are several factors to consider when evaluating which drone solutions are right for any specific water system. While CCTV systems come in just about any size, manufacturers concentrate their model lineups on popularly used pipe diameters. Manufacturers of crawler bots make an array of models from small six-wheel in-line crawlers to intentionally heavy four-wheelers that can churn through sludge and debris and use an articulating arm to ensure ideal camera positioning. The swimming drone sector has also seen many new players enter the market recently, so engineers can find innumerable body types on these agile solutions.

Any potential drone solution will have constraints based on application, however. For instance, the protective cage which allows Elios to roll off walls and obstructions measures just under 400 mm (15.7 inches), so it does need enough space to move through an air-filled interior. It’s ideally employed for conducting routine inspections of empty water tanks, active sewer tunnels, or larger-diameter air-gapped pipelines, all in less time and without putting workers in harm’s way.

While there are long-term cost-saving benefits to building an in-house drone fleet (and training in-house operators) to accomplish the unique inspection demands of any system, the industry is also seeing a boom in the vendor ecosystem. For administrators looking to test out the latest drone technology, bringing in an already-experienced outside vendor may be the best option to get started. Should the hardware acquisition make sense for your department, many manufacturers also offer resources to help navigate available grant and funding opportunities.

The Future Of Drones In The Water System

All drone solutions are bound by the same constraints of current technology. As developers continue to make strides in key areas of autonomous operations and machine learning, drone solutions will be able to evaluate and solve problems on their own. Not only will the hardware continue to evolve, but so will data-collection capabilities as cameras are equipped with more dynamic range and sensors made to sniff out just about anything a system manager can imagine.

This snowballing innovation cycle is being compounded by a current influx of investment for industrial drone applications. For outdoor aerial drones, another compounding factor is the Federal Aviation Administration’s continued push to promulgate new regulations for the drone industry and the ability to fly beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS). For those of us looking to push the envelope below the surface, an exciting boost is coming from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency recently announced a $3 million competition for developers, called the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, which is teaming private drone developers (including Flyability) with university researchers to create autonomous drone solutions that can accomplish various objectives in three separate underground environments. To win the prize, teams will need to make some big strides in artificial intelligence technology and overcome interoperability conflicts between automated systems. While the final event is not scheduled until 2021, all of that knowledge will continue to feed the next generation of drones that will drive efficiency and safety for water system inspectors.

About The Author

Marc Gandillon, marketing manager for Flyability, earned a degree in microelectronics from the Haute École du Paysage d’Ingénierie et d’Architecture (HEPIA), focusing on the development of ground robotic systems. With a decade of experience in semiconductor and embedded electronic businesses, applied to security and aeronautic industries, Gandillon brought his strong engineering background to Flyability as the company’s marketing manager in 2016.