Besides wildfires management and wildlife monitoring, power grid and industrial infrastructure monitoring are seen as promising markets for drones.
Everyone does agree that outlets for civilian Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) are potentially huge. However, the Teal Group, in a recent forecast, considers that such a boom will be significant in the middle term only, probably after 2018, once major economies will have made necessary arrangements to accommodate RPAs in their airspace.
Even if this market still has a long way to go, the use of drones for monitoring, inspection and surveillance of industrial sites, pipelines or power lines has already stated to take off, slowly. Such infrastructures, spread on long distances, match pretty well with capabilities that RPAs can provide.
Traditionally, energy companies spend a lot of money to perform such missions with manned aircraft. For instance, ERDF, the French group in charge of maintaining the country’s power grid, estimates that using a helicopter to inspect high-voltage or medium-voltage lines cost between €1,000 and €1,500 per hour.
How could drones help such companies? Their needs consist in identifying human presence near pipelines, following the evolution of surrounding vegetation near high-voltage lines, inspect wind turbines, etc. Actually, RPAs equipped with dedicated payloads can do the same missions but at a clearly lower cost, which could allow companies to make savings or, at a same cost, increase their monitoring frequency.
ERDF has been working during the past year with several UAV makers such as Surveycopter, an EADS’ subsidiary, or Delair Tech, in order to experience the use of RPAs in its day to day operations. Surveycopter’s flying robot has been used to monitor a 7,300km power lines network in the South of France. These trials were conclusive. The energy company plans an entry into service of Surveycopter’s Copter 4 RPA as soon as possible. This 30kg helicopter capable of flying 2 hours over a distance of 50km will help drastically limit the use lifting platforms or scaffoldings.
Still in France, the SNCF and RFF, the two companies exploiting and managing the French railway network, have also stared using drones for both security and maintenance purposes. With copper price skyrocketing, the theft of copper lines has reached an unprecedented level, valued at €30mn per year. Small drones used to monitor railways have shown useful to contain this phenomenon.
However, serious legal barriers keep limiting their massive use. Indeed, according to the current regulation, drones have to remain in “line of sight”… which somehow annihilates the interest of companies for such platforms. In order to remedy this situation, the SNCF and RFF are cooperating with the DGAC (French civil aviation agency) to create aerial corridors above railways. An experimental trial could occur in 2014. In Germany, the Deutsche Bahn will acquire drones worth $60,000 to enhance the security of its storage facilities. On the longer run, drones could also be used to inspect railways and catenaries.
EU regulations on use of civilian airspace have to evolve, or else the emerging European UAV industry will never take off. This potentially huge market is at the same time an opportunity for the aerospace sector and a benefit for future RPA customers. But the question is: How much time will the European administrative mammoth take to react?