High-Tech Inspections

By Patrick C. Miller | January 03, 2019

It’s been five years since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared on the CBS TV program “60 Minutes” to tell the world how the retail giant planned to use drones for package delivery. Amazon still hasn’t solved all the technical challenges needed to satisfy the Federal Aviation Administration, but that doesn’t mean the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and robotics industries haven’t found many other commercial applications for the technologies, some of which could change the very nature of everyday operations in the biomass and waste-to-energy industries. 

Drones, robots, machine learning, automation, artificial intelligence, sensors, autonomous operations, big data, data analytics—these are terms becoming common in the energy industry lexicon because of recent technological advancements. Is the biomass energy industry ready to take advantage of the coming changes? Thus far, it appears the U.S. biomass industry has been slow to adapt. In England, Drax began an innovative pilot project in the fall, at its biomass power station in North Yorkshire. The company is testing robotic process automation to help manage booking-in of millions of metric tons of fuel delivered to the plant each year.

In the U.S. oil and gas industry, a group of companies under the GE umbrella is actively working on the concept of using swarms of drones to autonomously inspect everything from deep sea drilling rigs to pipelines to onshore production facilities and refineries. Through machine learning and artificial intelligence, the drones become smarter and better able to predict trends and spot problems every time they fly. Advanced data links and powerful computer workstations in the field and on desktops in offices enable massive quantities of data to be quickly processed and analyzed to provide timely answers. 

Some of the experts in companies at the forefront of developing and commercializing this technology say it has direct applications to biomass energy, especially for plant inspections using crawling robots and small drones to inspect the inside of boilers. They believe what works well for a fossil energy power plant can, in most cases, work just as well for a biomass plant. 

Indoor Drone Inspections
Christian Smith is president of Interactive Aerial, a company located in Traverse City, Michigan, that specializes in using drones to inspect the inside of boilers. It has developed hardware and software specifically for this job, enabling drones to safely operate in what’s often a dangerous, enclosed environment. Because the FAA is mostly concerned with UAS flying in the same airspace as manned aircraft, Interactive Aerial doesn’t need the agency’s approval to operate indoors. 

Smith says that while he’s had discussions with biomass energy companies about conducting inspections, Interactive Aerial has yet to perform any for the industry. He believes one reason is that some biomass facilities have smaller boilers, making internal drone inspections less practical. “Most of what the drone industry has done thus far has really focused on outdoor and external inspections,” Smith notes. “It a natural assumption that a lot of the R&D money is being spent there. But I think in the past few years, people are really starting to see a transition to including internal drone inspections. It’s a natural fit for a lot of companies. I think it’s going to grow in the future as people become more aware of how many valuable assets can be flown with a drone.”

For example, Smith says when Interactive Aerial recently inspected the assets of a power plant, he was surprised to learn that some parts of the plant had never been inspected because it was too expensive to do it manually with traditional methods. “Half the time, we were flying inside things that people hadn’t seen since they were built, which is crazy to me,” he says. “We flew a handful of assets at that power plant where not only had they never flown a drone, but they’d not routinely inspected it. Period.”

With no pun intended, Smith says Interactive Aerial is taking asset management above and beyond what been possible in the past because inspections are now much easier to conduct and can be done at a sensible price point. “Some companies are doing things they’ve never done before,” he says. “That, in and of itself, is a big celebration for drones in general, but specifically for flying drones inside.”

Robots On The Walls
Founded in 2013 and based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gecko Robotics Inc. is a pioneer in using crawling robots that resemble something straight out of a Terminator movie to perform highly detailed inspections of power plant facilities. Their services are used by some of the biggest energy providers in the U.S., Asia and South America, but they have yet to work for a biomass energy company, says cofounder and CEO Jake Loosararian, even though there’s no reason they couldn’t. “There are a lot of similarities,” he explains. “They have very similar types of assets. They have tanks, silos, piping and boilers. Those are all things we’re able to climb on with our robots and do inspections today.” 

As a college student, Loosararian got his start in robotics by designing a robot that could crawl up a boiler wall and use sensors to identify problem areas. His first effort saved a 15-MW power plant from a $2 million forced shutdown. “It opened my eyes up to the possibilities that robots had in helping industry,” he says. “I made robot after robot until I could solve a lot of problems. It took close to $10 million in funding to reach a point in 2016 where we could launch a full-fledged service company. Now we’re doing services internationally for big companies. We keep finding ways to help clients who operate in dangerous environments and need quick inspections with a high degree of accuracy. We’ve been helping to solve a lot of issues and prevent forced outages.” 

There are compelling reasons to use Gecko’s robots, including safety and cost savings of up to $7 million for some customers. “The exciting thing about our inspections is that we can typically go 10 to 20 times faster than a human inspection,” Loosararian elaborates. “We can also gather 1,000 to 10,000 times more information with the robots. Our ability to help with preventative maintenance provides huge savings. With safety being an important subject, we’re also able to mitigate a lot of risks for our customers.”

Loosararian says that about 80 percent of the work Gecko Robotics does is driven by the demand for ultrasonic thickness inspections. The robot’s primary payload is eight transducers. Water pumped to the robot is used for coupling with the boiler wall surface, enabling precise, highly accurate measurements. High-definition cameras on the robots also conduct visual inspections as they crawl along. “We process the information on the robot, interpolate it and create heat maps to show exactly where the problem areas are,” Loosararian explains. “The colors we use are red, yellow and green with variations based on the thickness level. Red indicates that the thickness is below a certain threshold of tolerance. Yellow shows an area you need to watch out for, but isn’t yet critical. If it’s green, you’re looking good from a thickness standpoint.” 

Using this map, a customer can either replace damaged areas in the boiler or apply overlays to reinforce them. “Our customers don’t have to guess or be surprised by forced outages,” Loosararian states. “Instead, they can be preventative and predictive. Software developed for this purpose helps keep the customer ahead of the curve and provides a competitive advantage over those who aren’t using this technology. We can provide information about what the data is saying in terms of operational efficiencies or preventative maintenance plans.” 

Typically, a boiler inspection can be completed in one or two days without the need for expensive scaffolding or the cost of setting it up and taking it down. Anywhere from one to five of Gecko Robotics’ 60 robots are used. “Our turnaround is 24 hours for deliverables after the inspection’s done,” Loosararian says. “Customers get a full heat map and access to our portal where their information is stored and organized for future reference.” 

Black & Veatch, an international engineering, consulting and construction company headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas, is active in developing alternative energy and using unmanned aircraft systems to inspect power plant facilities and linear infrastructure, such as transmission lines and pipelines. In November, B&V made news in the aviation world by partnering with Collins Aerospace to fly a 60-mile drone inspection of Ameren Corp. transmission lines in southern Illinois. Under current FAA regulations, small UAS are limited to flying within the pilot’s line of sight. However, in this case, the FAA granted authorization to test the command and control communications system for operations beyond the pilot’s sight—a major advancement for commercial UAS operations.

As with Gecko Robotics, B&V hasn’t put its UAS expertise to work for the biomass energy industry. Jamare Bates, who’s led UAS operations at B&V for two years, also leads a project in the company’s growth accelerator, which seeks new markets for innovative technologies with growth potential. He believes one reason some businesses have been reluctant to jump on the UAS technology bandwagon is that early on, many new companies overpromised what they could deliver. 

Only the Beginning
“We try to remind people that this technology is in its early stages,” Bates notes. “It’s like the early 1900s when cars were just coming into the market. Nobody really understood how it was all going to work and many thought it never would. We’re saying the same thing today. This is the beginning of something that—years from now—we’re going to look back on and think, ‘What took so long for us to get this?’”

Part of fulfilling the promise of UAS technology is in providing customers with information they can use to make smart, timely decisions based on accurate data analysis. “One of the important things we’re working on is using our engineering expertise to manage, analyze and use data for decision making,” he explains. “If you take a thousand pictures of a transmission line and hand them to a customer, it doesn’t really do anything for them. If you say they have 300 broken insulators at a location, show the insulators at high-risk of breaking and the ones at low-risk, now you’ve changed the customer’s ability to be proactive rather than reactive. That’s a really important part of what Black & Veatch is working on. It’s taking all this data and using it for smart decision making.”

Beyond using UAS for inspections, Bates sees potential applications of the technology that could now be used by the biomass energy industry. For example, flying drones commercially to make volumetric measurements is an application currently in wide use by many industries because current FAA regulations allow it. Plus, it’s much faster and more accurate than making surveying estimates. “We can do this at plants that have stockpiles of coal, rock, soil, biomass, wood pellets—whatever is stored at a location,” Bates says. “We fly over those stockpiles, take images, turn them into a 3D model and then accurately determine the volume of the stockpile. You fly over tomorrow, check the difference and you know how much fuel was burned. Now, all of a sudden, you have efficiency calculations.” 

In addition, Bates knows from B&V’s experience of flying drones over transmission lines to spot plant growth encroachment into the right-of-way that the hyperspectral sensors are good at identifying types of vegetation and discerning plant health.  He sees a day when drones are used to spot sources of vegetation that could be harvested as biomass fuel. “One of the things we talk about with drones is leveraging the flight,” Bates says. “When you’re flying and looking down with a hyperspectral camera, you’re looking for transmission line problems. But you could also be finding vegetation for biomass fuel. It’s one flight, two opportunities.” 

What’s become clear over the past five years is that the days of companies being involved in their own do-it-yourself UAS and robotics R&D projects has mostly ended. Instead, they look to third parties with the technology, expertise and resources to do the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs for which drones and robots are ideally suited. As one UAS industry expert put it, “Nobody cares what kind of drone you fly as long as you give them good answers.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer
Biomass Magazine
and UAS Magazine
[email protected]