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Are Drones Really Safe to Use for Non-Destructive Testing?

The question of whether drones are intrinsically safe is one of the first questions that comes to mind for oil, gas and chemical professionals.


Who is asking this question and why?

Oil, gas and chemical facilities store gasoline, natural gas and other highly flammable and hazardous substances in containers such as pressure vessels and tanks. These assets must undergo visual and maintenance inspections without jeopardizing site safety. The same applies to power plants and other critical infrastructure.

However, even if intrinsically safe drones didn’t exist, that wouldn’t stop drones from performing visual inspections in the oil, gas and chemical industries.

To properly outline the topic of intrinsically safe drones, let’s first look at what it takes to build a truly intrinsically safe drone. Then, we will look at solutions to reduce risk and use drones in places where we would not otherwise use them. Finally, we will look at what are the benefits of using drones despite risk mitigation procedures.


What does it take to build an intrinsically safe drone?

First, it’s important to explain what intrinsically safe means:

Intrinsic safety is a design approach that ensures the safe operation of electrical equipment in hazardous areas by limiting the electrical and thermal energy that can ignite an explosive environment. It is also important to define the level of intrinsic safety that must be achieved.

Different standards are used around the world to regulate the use of electronic equipment in explosive atmospheres. The standards vary in nomenclature and specificity, but all agree that above a certain concentration of hazardous substances and a certain probability of the presence of hazardous substances, electronic equipment must have certain characteristics to mitigate the risk of explosion. This is the level of intrinsic safety we are talking about.

Perhaps most importantly, intrinsically safe equipment must not generate sparks or static charges. To achieve this, different techniques are used, including oil-impregnation, powder filling, encapsulation or blowing and pressurization. In addition, the surface temperature of intrinsically safe equipment must not exceed 25°C (77°F).

If an explosion occurs inside the equipment, it must be constructed in such a way as to contain the explosion and ensure that no hot gases, hot components, flames or sparks are released into the explosive environment. For this reason, intrinsically safe equipment is usually about ten times heavier than non-intrinsically safe equipment.


Drones and their intrinsic safety characteristics.

Commercial drones do not yet meet these standards. In fact, they have all the characteristics of hazardous equipment flying in explosive environments:.

1. Drones contain batteries, motors, and potentially LEDs, which can become very hot when in operation;

2. the drones have high-speed rotating propellers that can generate sparks and static charges;

3. the propellers are mounted on brushless motors that are exposed to the environment for cooling, which helps generate static electricity;

4. drones designed to be flown indoors emit light that can generate heat in excess of 25°C;

5. drones must be light enough to fly, which makes them much lighter than intrinsically safe devices.

Given all of these limitations, a serious intrinsically safe drone will not be envisioned unless we discover how to compensate for gravity in a more efficient way than we do today.


How can UAVs improve the inspection process?

In the vast majority of cases, the risk mitigation measures outlined above will only have a minor impact on drone lift without any major performance issues. While it depends on the inspection being performed or the particular use, there are a number of factors that favor drones when weighing the pros and cons of deploying drones versus humans. These are the most important.

1. Safety

First, consider the impact on safety. Efforts to deploy drone technology in human workplaces are worthwhile because then humans don’t have to physically visually inspect assets in confined spaces or hazardous areas. This includes increased safety for people and assets, cost savings due to reduced downtime and elimination of scaffolding, and the ability to perform remote visual inspections and other non-destructive testing (NDT) methods quickly and more frequently.

2. Speed

Drone inspections are very time efficient. Properly trained inspectors will be able to complete inspections more efficiently and quickly by operating the technology remotely than by physically accessing the asset to perform the same inspection. Drones have reduced inspection time by 50% to 98% from what was originally anticipated.

Depending on the asset, it may not even be necessary to stop the equipment from running in order to perform the inspection as is the case with manual access, which can sometimes have a significant impact on downtime.

3. Scope

Drones can find problems that are difficult or completely impossible to detect manually, especially in areas that are difficult or impossible for people to reach.

4. Intelligence

Finally, if inspections indicate that manual intervention is required to make repairs, the data collected can allow maintenance managers to take the next step by targeting only the areas that need repair. The intelligent data provided by inspection drones can be a powerful tool for inspection teams.


Are drones more popular when paired with environmental risk mitigation technology?

Nitrogen purge systems and other types of risk mitigation technology are typically used in pressurized environments where people must enter the workplace. Drones and other remote visual inspection tools are better suited to experiencing these environments than humans, which greatly reduces risk.

Robotic remote inspection tools have been providing inspectors with data in hazardous environments, especially in confined spaces such as pipelines, where crawlers can be perfect for certain inspection tasks. For industries with hazardous areas, these risk mitigation technologies, combined with RVIs such as crawlers and drones, reduce the need for humans to physically enter the risky areas in question for visual inspections.

Environmental risk mitigation also eliminates the need for ATEX certification and reduces the paperwork and bureaucracy required for tasks such as OSHA regulations regarding human entry into hazardous environments. All of these factors increase the attractiveness of drones in the eyes of inspectors.

Post time: Apr-30-2024