Drone on and on

Tuesday October 27, 2015
Written by Jon Hiltz
Oct. 27, 2015 - In the last 10 years, when mentioning the word ‘drone’ in good company, it can either provoke strong opinions about their usefulness in society or harsh criticism regarding the industries and jobs these machines will no doubt affect. Regardless if one is for or against these nearly autonomous creations, drones are changing the world we live in on many different levels and doing so at a radical pace.

How these machines will change the industrial automation industry is a great question for engineering prognosticators, so Manufacturing AUTOMATION contacted industry players to ask them how drones will alter the automated world.

Jim Pinto was president and CEO of Action Instruments and has since been an investor, speaker, writer, tech futurist and author of two books on automation and a laundry list of other accomplishments. When asked about the use of drones in automation he had this to say. “There are lots of robotics and some research applications, but [with drones] nothing of significance yet.”

Although drones in automation these days are still a very young idea, Pinto does see them being very significant in the not-too-distant future. “There are two major segments in industrial automation, factories (such as auto manufacturing) and process plants (such as chemical processing) which are spread out over larger areas. Process plants [in particular] may have use for drones for remote inspection of equipment and facilities.”

Pinto says he feels the eventual use of drones will have a positive effect on the industry as more applications are found for them. “In industrial automation, cost/price is not a factor. The major influence is productivity gains to justify cost.”

Dave Kroetsch is the president and CEO of Aeryon Labs based in Waterloo, Ont., which provides small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) for the military, resellers and commercial businesses. Kroetsch sees a bright future for drones in automation.

“The industrial users are today doing things like inspecting their power lines or their petrochemical plant but at some point I believe that they are going to be one of the first users of automated delivery capabilities,” he says. He goes on to say that drones are already working in high reliability environments where safety is the most important issue.

Kroetsch currently does not see drones being used that much in industrial automation either but the reason in his opinion is not that they aren’t useful. “[It’s] not because of the technology element, but with the regulations and safety side of it. In the case of indoor operations for example, there’s not a whole lot of advantage to using a drone [however] a great example of an outdoor use of a drone would be moving things from one side of a plant to another,” he notes.

Kroetsch also cites examples of uses such as collecting core samples in the mining industry to get back to the lab for processing and in agriculture. “The automation that’s moving into agriculture will start incorporating data from drones. For example, I would fly over a field and I use a multispectral camera and based on the type of light that a plant leaf reflects, you can determine that this plant needs more water and this plant needs more fertilizer.”

He did mention that the science on that technology is still not 100 per cent but from an automation perspective, the drone would feed that data into an automated watering or fertilizing system to yield the healthiest crops possible.

Aeryon Labs, in the industrial automation sector, is waiting for the science to catch up before they get involved with creating drones for those purposes. “The software and the algorithms are not there yet. We’re waiting for the scientists to say ‘here’s the formula that relates the frequency of light to the concentration of water’ for example so ultimately the farmer needs to then act upon.” He went on to say that there are a lot of people currently working on that but Aeryon won’t think about investing dollars into it until the science is there to meet the demand.

Despite the uncertainty as to when this marriage of technology will take place, contacts in the automation sector and drone manufacturers feel that at this point we at least have a willingness to incorporate the two. As automation changes, drones can and will be considered for jobs that are too dangerous or too time-consuming to have a human involved.

Jon Hiltz is a freelance writer based in Thornhill, Ont.

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