Drones and Industry 4.0

Feb. 23, 2019
Though drones might still seem to be more of a hobby than a critical piece of the IIoT puzzle, numerous applications and new technology developments are being explored that will better position drones as important data collection devices for industry.

The growth in the profile of drones has surely by now moved out of the folder marked “Fad.” Where once flying model aircraft was seen as a fairly niche hobby, enjoyed by men with sensible jackets and thick-rimmed glasses, now seemingly everyone wants to get in on the drone act.

Drones are now used extensively to carry out inspections or survey and map terrain in harsh or hazardous environments. For work on power lines or oil rigs, the benefits to the health and safety of human workers are clear. After all, why would you send a human up a tower to assess a fault when it takes a camera-equipped drone 10 seconds to get there?

Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data and drones are all emerging technology stories destined to find ways to complement one another. When you consider a drone as just another sensor, the same as you’d find installed in factories and machines anywhere, you can begin to see where it fits in the automation ecosystem.

For example, it’s not difficult to imagine using a thermal-imaging device connected to a drone to track high levels of heat coming from an area in a factory and autonomously activate the sprinkler system or notify emergency services.

A good demonstration of how technology companies are adapting drones for use in industry is the new offering from Israeli firm Airobotics. Its Optimus drone-in-a-box package arrives in something resembling a small shipping container. Inside, robotic arms change the drone’s batteries, install different payloads (e.g. cameras and lidar) and extract the data provided from the aircraft for subsequent analysis. Everything—from programming flight paths to takeoff and landing—is completely automated. It can truly run in the background without any human intervention.

As new and interesting potential applications are dreamed up for drone use in industry, drones will be fitted with ever heavier and more complex payloads. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to see robotic arms fitted to drones, or even apparatus for carrying humans—all of which requires more power and better range.

The issue of powering the drone remains a critical consideration for anyone looking to deploy drones for industrial purposes. At the moment, operators need to balance the weight of the payload vs. the required flight-time. Higher-powered (or more efficient) batteries that mitigate against this are surely on the horizon, either in the form of improvements to existing lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries or via new technologies.

Though drone power and payload concerns continue to develop, what is clear is how drone use will continue to grow. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in the U.S. believes drones and drone-related technologies could be responsible for the creation of up to 100,000 new jobs and contribute an extra $82 billion to the U.S. economy by 2025.

However you look at it, drones are here to stay. The examples of drones being used to increase productivity or to make work a safer place far outnumber the negative examples that often capture the biggest headlines. Regulation of drones will, of course, evolve over time to meet the ever-changing drone landscape, and safety will be paramount to these developments.

For more information, visit Control Techniques at acim.nidec.com/en-us/drives/control-techniques.