Drones add a touch of inspiration to our everyday lives and are becoming increasingly available to the general public. Their commercial potential is very much under scrutiny, too.
Ssssssssssssssst. Attention, attention: unmanned aerial vehicle approaching.
Rather like some hovering, over-sized spider, the Octocopter heads for the viaduct in Bielefeld-Schildesche. A small group of people watch from the ground, their gaze fixed on the flying object.
By contrast, the Octocopter only has camera eyes for its target. It flies along the pre-stressed concrete bridge in search of cracks, flaking and any spots which are moist or otherwise visually conspicuous. One of the observers holds a monitor in his hands that shows what the drone's sensors detect. Once it has flowed around the arches of the bridge several times, it lands gently in the grass. Great work! Everyone is happy with the results of the trial aerial inspection.
It is part of a research and development project being carried out by TÜV Rheinland for the Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt). The aim is to run a feasibility study to demonstrate the potential of drones in detecting and assessing damage on bridges.
“We want to find out whether multicopters are a suitable tool for carrying out inspection work on bridges”, says Martin Sperber. “At the same time, TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services innovation management is looking at the technical aspects and cost-efficiency of various potential services for such facilities as photovoltaic, biogas and wind power plants.” The Head of Division Key Account Aviation/Airports with TÜV Rheinland sees great potential in the deployment of drones.
Lots of benefits
Preparatory reconnaissance flights in particular reduce the elaborate abseiling otherwise required of experts. “Once the drone has inspected the structure in question, all surface damage can be clearly documented. This gives the experts a much clearer sense of direction as they go about their work”, explains Martin Sperber. At the same time, customers benefit from the fact that the standstill period for bridges and other facilities is reduced to a minimum. “Motorists are pleased to hear that a freeway bridge is not going to be closed for inspection but will be monitored by a drone instead,” adds the expert, who was appointed chairman of the UAS standards committee for aviation and aerospace at the German Institute for Standardization (DIN). Here he is involved with issues relating to the standardization of unmanned aviation. This is important in terms of safety and transparency, in relation to both the devices themselves and the services they are designed to provide. It's no easy business. The situation regarding approvals and insurance is in itself beset with uncertainties – not least because different regulations apply from one German state to the next.
While the legal aspects are being examined, TÜV Rheinland is involved in testing the drone systems in use. The focus is on such elements as the so-called flight controller, which is responsible for stable flight mechanics in the multicopter. “There has to be a minimum level of fail-safety for a drone to fly safely,” says Martin Sperber. Other aspects of drone testing include batteries, motors and propellers. Innovation management uses entirely new kinds of measurement sensors.
Initial tests at the Fraunhofer Institute for Transportation and Infrastructure Systems indicate that novel sensors can be used to make electroluminescence measurements by daylight. This is a huge advantage, particularly when it comes to inspecting photovoltaic plants. As far as how and in which areas drones can be put to use in the service sector, only the future will tell. One thing is certain, however: they are capable of much more than just taking nice bird's-eye view photographs.
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