Confined spaces like mine shafts, electrical vaults, storage tanks, boilers, culverts, tunnels, pipes, ducts and drainage shafts are all essential parts of industry that require careful inspection, but they’re not built for continuous occupancy. Confined spaces frequently have low air quality, toxic liquids or gases, limited entry and exit, risky electrical setups, free-flowing liquids or granular solids, and other conditions that make them hazardous to humans.

For too long, industrial companies have faced a difficult choice: expose employees to massive risks by frequently sending them into confined spaces for equipment and infrastructure inspections, or inspect less frequently and risk equipment or infrastructure malfunction that could have deadly consequences.

Further, when a worker is in a confined space completing an inspection, it’s an onerous and time-consuming process, with his or her movements often hindered by the limited space and making it difficult for a thorough inspection to be completed.

All told, confined space inspections are an aspect of industrial operations that has been in desperate need of improvement. Thankfully, that improvement has arrived with the development of automated industrial drones.

A job fit for a drone

Considering that the potential hazards faced by humans in confined space inspections include getting stuck or crushed, running out of oxygen, dealing with extreme temperatures, or being exposed to toxic chemicals and gas, there are few jobs better suited for being taken over by industrial drones, allowing human inspectors to do their work using a high-definition live video stream.

Not only does using industrial drones for this job make the process infinitely safer, but it also makes the process much less expensive by reducing the time it takes for the inspections to be completed, reducing the need for operational downtime, and eliminating the need for specialized equipment for inspections, such as scaffolding, cables and rope access, and breathing aids.

Industrial drones and their range of sensors also allow for the capture of high-resolution imagery as well as a range of precise data that may be superior to what a human inspector could collect in these high-risk inspections in limited space with often extreme conditions.

Overall, industrial drones enable companies to quickly perform frequent, low-cost inspections without enduring downtime or exposing employees to serious health hazards and occupational risks. There’s really only one way using industrial drones for these types of inspections can be made any better, and that’s with automation.

The necessity of automation

While any high-quality industrial drone represents an improvement in the confined space inspection process, it’s only an automated industrial drone that can truly optimize these inspections.

Automated industrial drones are drones that handle the entire flying process automatically, without requiring a human pilot. Not only does this cut costs significantly, but it also takes the chance of human error out of the inspection process, producing better results in areas that are difficult to navigate and reducing the potential for damage to the drone.

Just as importantly, leading industrial drones built with end to end automation also perform their own maintenance. This includes changing their own sensors so they can stream live video, test for emissions and leaks, and gauge temperature, among other inspection applications. It also includes changing and charging their own batteries, which is essential for industrial inspections of all kinds because it means these drones are ready to launch at any moment, making them invaluable in an on-demand and even emergency capacity. Considering the disasters that can occur at oil and gas facilities and other industrial sites, the quick response of an automated drone could very well prevent the loss of life and damage to the facility and surrounding area.

Low-flying, high expectations

When you picture drones it’s all too easy to picture high-flying missions over soaring expanses, but some of the most important work industrial drones can do is in tight areas, particularly with confined space inspections in areas like sub-cellars, silos, utility vaults and pump stations.

Industries like oil and gas, alternative energy, mining, construction and critical infrastructure will greatly benefit from turning over responsibility for these high-risk inspections to the automated drones that can handle them quickly and efficiently with low associated costs and reduced downtime. This is just one area of industry that automated industrial drones are revolutionizing, and considering the dangers and complications associated with this particular area, that revolution is coming none too soon.