Industrial inspections of buildings, infrastructure, and machinery are essential to keep them in working order and keep the public safe, but such inspections are often difficult and time consuming to complete. On top of that, they can be risky for the personnel involved, and in the age of coronavirus, they’re next to impossible to complete without breaking social distancing guidelines.
An emerging technology not only makes industrial inspections faster and less dangerous, but provides an alternative to traditional “boots on the ground” inspections that necessitate close human contact. We’re talking about drone inspections.
If you enjoy experimenting with developing technologies, are interested in finding new ways to merge mechanical and virtual solutions, and have a safety-first approach to your work, a career as an industrial drone inspector might be the perfect fit for you. We’ll tell you what industrial drone inspectors do, take a look at how COVID-19 is shaping the job market and share some helpful tips if you’re looking to get started in this exciting field.
Industrial inspection assesses the integrity of industrial structures, machinery and other assets, like power lines, bridges, railways, oil and gas pipelines, and more. These assets are critical for their respective enterprises to function, but they’re often sprawling, complex, and located in remote places. This can make inspecting them–not to mention getting to them in the first place–a challenge.
Industrial drone inspection harnesses the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, to complement or replace a physical inspection by a technician on the ground. In a typical drone inspection setup, the drone carries a high-quality camera that can be moved on three axes to assess an asset from every angle possible. A live video feed is sent back to technicians who can monitor, maneuver the drone and inspect the footage in real time and via later playback.
Industrial drone inspection comes with a few major benefits for companies. First, it saves time on getting a technician to the physical inspection site and makes response times quicker in the event of incidents and emergency alarms. Using a drone, a company can very quickly get a visual on a job site for an immediate assessment while a technician gets en route.
Drone inspections also provide a different perspective than a hands-on inspection, which can be highly useful in diagnosing complex or tough-to-spot problems. An issue that may not be visible from up close may suddenly become apparent when viewed from an aerial perspective or from a far-away vantage point. This can save time, money and resources while keeping personnel safer in the process.
Finally, drones present an exciting new opportunity to layer artificial intelligence on top of manual inspection data for more accurate inspections and troubleshooting. In addition to cameras, for example, drones might be outfitted with sensors that integrate with SCADA systems and/or PLCs, then using machine learning to flag abnormalities and make the necessary adjustments automatically.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the field of industrial drone inspection is that it’s very much still evolving. For innovative individuals, there’s a massive opportunity to discover new and ever-more-impactful ways to use the technology to increase the precision, efficiency, and capabilities of industrial inspection. Especially if you’re an NDT tech or inspector already skilled in one or more industrial inspection methods and techniques.
Companies have been using drones to aid in their inspection efforts for several years now, but the coronavirus pandemic has pulled this inspection method to the forefront.
To cite one example, electric utilities typically rely on dually manned helicopters or multi-person truck crews to check on power poles and transmission lines, but social distancing guidelines discourage such practices. With drone inspection, a single technician (or a team of technicians in different places) can conduct an assessment and make a diagnosis without ever coming into contact with another person.
Drone operators have already noticed a spike in demand. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a North Carolina drone operator that saw a threefold increase in the number of utilities interested in its services.
As another example, the team at Shell Deer Park near Houston, Texas has been using drones since the summer of 2016 to reduce the need for daunting, dangerous climbs; improving safety; and cutting the cost of refinery inspections in the process.
While a drone can’t replace a human inspector, its capabilities can complement human skills and expand the scope of an inspection. And drones can significantly decrease the amount of close personal contact required to achieve a thorough assessment.
Your earning potential in the field of industrial drone inspection will vary based on your job title and level of experience.
UAV pilots have a reported average base pay on Glassdoor of close to $83,000 a year. A MarketWatch report cites several freelance drone pilots who are easily clearing six figures. UAV technicians, on the other hand, who provide maintenance and troubleshooting rather than doing actual flying, earn a reported average base pay of about $34,500 a year.
Then there are the inspectors who analyze and interpret the drone footage. While there isn’t yet a significant set of data specific to drone-based inspectors, quality control inspectors in general earn an average base pay of around $44,000 a year.
Another factor that may impact your earning potential is whether you work in-house for a company, like being a drone inspection specialist at a construction firm, in-house for an agency, like a firm that supplies third-party drone services, or freelance as an independent contractor.
COVID-19 has suspended or eliminated millions of jobs nationwide, and that includes the field of industrial inspection. Add to that a crippling plunge in oil prices and you’ve got a less-than-rosy job outlook for inspectors who are currently looking for work. Transitioning your skills to the field of drone inspection is one way to set yourself apart and open new career doors in the midst of a tough job market.
In addition to the diverse career paths open to inspectors, like specializing in advanced fields of testing and pursuing upper-level jobs in management, drone inspection offers a new set of employment opportunities. You could pursue certification as a drone pilot, for example, or open your own drone inspection consulting firm.
In addition to complying with industry-specific guidelines and regulations (i.e. ISO/TS 29001 for oil and gas quality management) the field of drone inspection must also be compliant with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. We’ll talk more about these below.
If you want to be able to pilot a drone, you must obtain a remote pilot certificate from the FAA. This qualification certifies your familiarity with the regulations, operating procedures and safety protocol for flying UAVs.
To be eligible for a remote pilot certificate, you must be at least 16 years old, be able to speak and write in English, be in adequate physical and mental condition to fly a drone, and pass an aeronautical exam. Your certificate must be renewed every two years.
In addition to getting certified for someone to pilot the drone, companies using drones for commercial purposes must comply with all requirements outlined in what’s known as Part 107, or obtain a waiver to not comply with these guidelines. For example, if you want to fly the drone farther than you can physically see it (which is the case with many industrial inspection sites), you’d need a Part 107 waiver.
The FAA has a wealth of additional information about the requirements for flying commercial drones safely and legally in its ‘Drone Zone.’
The FAA’s aeronautical test requires a specific set of knowledge on UAV aircraft operation and limitations. Some of the topics covered in the exam include pre-flight inspections, flight operation, airspace classifications, the effects of weather on drones, communication procedures, emergency procedures, and aeronautical decision making.
Exam candidates may choose to pursue independent learning to familiarize themselves with these topics, or to take one of numerous prep courses that are offered online.
If you’re interested in a role as the person who inspects the images and footage resulting from a drone flight, you’ll want to pursue training and certification in an area like nondestructive testing. We cover this topic in depth here.
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