Robert E. Sinclair, Corporate CAD Technology Manager, Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have seen increased use partly due to improvements in drone-adaptable sensory technology. These improvements allow companies like ours to offer clients an increasing number and broader range of solutions via an in-house drone fleet.
When equipped with LiDAR technology, drones can collect the data needed to produce 3D maps of properties quickly, easily, and accurately as LiDAR enables the production of “bare earth” images showing ground elevations without vegetation cover. Drones can help us obtain data used in the identification of gas leaks in pipelines and valves, and also in the mapping of heat loss from buildings.
But one of the surprising benefits we’ve found in our engineering firm’s three-year history of drone use is improved safety. Simply put, drones help keep workers out of unsafe situations.
Why Safety Matters to the Bottom Line
One of the many reasons why safety matters is that employers need to protect their Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR), the resultant measurable that stems from an OSHA requirement to report workplace injuries. An unfavorable TRIR can result in difficult OSHA inspections, with the possibility of sanctions, fines, and orders to redesign workplaces and procedures. Potential customers often check the workplace injury record of supplier companies they’re considering, avoiding those with a poor TRIR.
Worker injuries result in lost time, the need to hire replacement workers, and medical costs. They’re also bad for company morale. In addition, a reputation for performing work in unsafe environments makes it difficult to recruit and retain employees.
All of this means that anyone in a company who can find a way to protect its safety record is seen as offering real benefits to the financial bottom line.
How Drones Help Keep Workers Safe
Major telecoms will use a connected web of drones to create temporary wireless communication networks in remote or disaster-struck areas
To see how this works, consider four situations that might put workers at risk.
• Volume calculations: Aggregate pit operators need accurate, quick calculations of volume to see how much sand, gravel, or rock is available. Or, it might be a construction company that needs to calculate how much soil must be moved in order to flatten a building site. In pre-drone times, both cases would have required a survey crew on the ground, climbing around in an area that might also have moving heavy equipment such as trucks and backhoes. The safety risks are obvious.
However, a qualified operator standing in a safe place can perform drone aerial mapping and have an accurate 3D map available within hours.
• Fugitive gas emissions: Tightening environmental regulations on unplanned gas emissions from pipelines, valves, and other installations—plus the fact that emissions represent lost revenue—mean a regular need to check for leaks. Pre-drones, this would have involved one or more workers equipped with hand-held gas-detection units walking the site to check for leaks. This exposes the worker to risks common to all remote site visits, plus the potential health risk from gas emissions.
Again, a qualified drone operator can stay in a safe place offering a clear line of sight and fly a drone unit equipped with gas-detection technology over the site to check for leaks—safely and quickly.
• Inspecting tall structures: Working on cellular towers, radio masts, wind turbines, chimneys and smoke stacks can be hazardous. This includes making the climb itself, exposing a worker to a potential fall. Then there are the hazards that might come from the structure itself such as electrocution or exposure to hazardous fumes.
Drones can carry out visual inspection to see if there is a problem that needs fixing, minimizing worker exposure to hazardous situations, and helping them know what tools and supplies to take along if a climb must be made.
• Detecting heat loss in buildings: Leaks from faulty window seals and joints around ventilation fixtures cost money. Checking for leaks used to be difficult, and building owners might take the approach of re-sealing all windows, even those that were not a problem.
This activity exposed workers to dangers that come with working at height, maybe from ladders.
With drones, it’s possible to fly around the building, creating an accurate, detailed heat map that helps work crews focus on fixing only those places that need it.
Looking for Health and Safety Issues to Solve
Because of the severe consequences of health and safety problems, and the utility of drones for helping avoid those problems, it makes sense to look for employee work situations for which drones may be part of the answer. Here are some:
• Working outside, exposed to weather-related risks: Outside work in rainy or icy weather exposes workers to the risk of a slip and fall. Working outside in hot weather poses risk of heat stroke and sunburn. So, look for instances in which workers must be outside and see if drones can help them stay away from weather-related risks.
• Being on foot in areas where vehicles are operating: Aggregate pits are just one situation in which workers are on foot and possibly vulnerable to large vehicles. Construction sites meet this description, too. So, one possible solution to the need for site inspections, such as to compile as-built drawings, is to have the drawings compiled from drone-collected data.
• Working remotely, particularly alone: Any situation in which workers must travel to a remote site and then inspect it on foot, possibly alone, is a risk. Drones can gather the information more quickly. One example: checking the inventory in a composting facility for hot spots that may grow into a fire.
• Working from height: Working from a ladder, scissor lift, hydraulic lift, or a platform lowered from the roof puts workers at risk. If the work involves inspection, a drone may be able to do that work more safely, and then workers can be dispatched to areas that need attention (Drones can’t operate caulking guns—yet).
• Entering potentially hazardous areas: Think of places where there may be gas leaks, wildlife, or the potential for physical confrontation (possibly, straying onto private property), hazardous materials or contaminated soils and see if drones can do the job instead.
It’s clear that drones can be a solution to many business issues—but it helps to look at what problems you need to solve, and then see if there is a way that drones can be a part of a safer solution.