Heating Up: A Look at Drone Applications for Thermal Imaging

EX 01 16489 0063 0080Drones offer several options for thermal imaging.

By Trevor Wichmann

Drones are now being used in a variety of construction and engineering applications, but one area that shows great promise for future use is thermal imaging. The potential applications of this technology reach far beyond construction and into the realms of agriculture, energy, engineering and emergency response.

Many companies are looking to invest in thermal sensors and add thermographic data to their offerings of products and services. For sophisticated companies such as major corporations, construction and engineering firms and energy companies, this makes a lot of sense.

Keep in mind, though, that thermal imaging may require more knowledge and expertise than shooting a simple aerial video. For starters, a drone equipped with a thermal sensor is most useful in the hands of an operator who has been trained on best practices for collecting thermal data. Weather conditions can confound thermal imaging, so it’s essential that the operator is familiar with these nuances. For example, any significant wind will act to cool a surface, which can skew the thermal map.

Secondly, you’ll need thermal imaging software to process your data and create actionable deliverables. Remember – the deliverable is the goal, not the flight.

If you’re adding thermographic data to your existing aerial services, it means your business is expanding, which is great news. It also means you need an efficient way to manage the entirety of your flight operations so you don’t waste time on things that don’t generate any revenue—repeating instructions to pilots such as wondering who a drone has been assigned to and whether batteries have been charged or merging spreadsheets.

Getting set up for success at the outset will ensure that the information you present to your customers, clients and colleagues is on time, accurate, and easy to understand.

Construction Applications

Inspections are a part of life on job sites, so any means to make them more efficient will speed up the process and lower a firm’s bottom line. With the ability to see a live thermographic image of a structure, an inspector can search for unusual differences in heat. This makes studying energy efficiency and checking for problems like water leakage and damaged insulation much simpler.

Although construction companies have been using thermal imaging for several years, it has only recently become possible to attach a thermal sensor to a drone. The ability to take an aerial heat image, without chartering a helicopter or plane, lowers costs and may provide more scheduling flexibility.

Drones with thermal sensors can accomplish a lot on a construction site such as detecting thermal hotspots, delamination, spalling and moisture intrusion.

Solar panels are another use for drone-based thermal imaging inspections. Specifically, photovoltaic cells are most efficient when they are cooler; excess heat is a sign that they aren’t working as well as they should.

Because solar farms are frequently spread across several modules located in remote areas with harsh environmental conditions, drones are a cost-effective alternative to personnel working at height, elevated tripods, or conventional aircraft.

Agriculture Applications

In general, agriculture in the United States has been slower to adopt drone technology than other industries such as construction and engineering, energy, insurance and broadcast media. My take on this adoption pattern is that smaller farms don’t have the time to become drone experts and data analysts on top of everything they’re already doing, such as managing soil, planting crops, irrigating, accounting and selling.

Industrial farms, on the other hand, are using drones to maximize yields, irrigate efficiently and identify issues early on. Recently, I was struck by the case of sugar beets – a major source of refined sugar in the U.S. – which are stored in huge piles after harvest. Due to their high sugar content, sugar beets are prone to fermentation, which can quickly spread and ruin the surrounding beets. The heat energy released by this process is detectable by thermal cameras, so a properly outfitted drone can fly over several piles of beets in relatively little time, helping to identify problem areas and cut down on waste.

Emergency Response Uses

Drones equipped with thermal sensors are also helping emergency responders and public safety workers keep us — and themselves —safer. Search and rescue teams can use drones to detect humans in the wilderness, even at night. Firefighters are using thermal imaging technology to detect hotspots in buildings. When it comes to extra-scary emergencies such as train derailments and methanol fires, drones give first responders a way to inspect the situation while staying out harm’s way. Methanol produces a flame invisible to the human eye, which makes it extremely difficult for firefighter crews to deal with.

Trevor Wichmann is senior director of sales at Skyward

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