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UAS poised to replace human inspectors on pipelines, turbines

FNS Photo by Luke Franke Grand Forks Police Department Cpl. Tim Schuh, left, and UAS pilot Jake Stoltz test out the Draganflyer X4ES moments before running it through real-life situations it might be used for in the field in front of the media Tuesday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS — The days of observing hundreds of miles of oil pipeline from a plane or dangling 200 feet in the air from a wind tower may soon be behind structural inspectors.

Some companies are developing technology that would allow unmanned aircraft systems to step in and do these often dangerous tasks in less time and at a reduced cost.

Two groups outlined their plans for a crowd Wednesday at the UAS Action Summit held this week at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

Zach Lamppa, president of Talent Inspection Group, wants to deploy unmanned aircraft to fly North Dakota’s nearly 18,000 miles of oil pipeline to detect leaks and other risks. He has received a $125,000 grant from the state Oil and Gas Research Council to pursue testing the technology.

“(The Oil and Gas Research Council is) behind me,” he said. “They feel like this is a valid (method) we can potentially use after the airspace opens up to protect not only assets, but protect people and protect the environment.”

Danny Ellis also wants to see UAS used to make inspections easier. His Michigan-based company, SkySpecs, is targeting infrastructure such as wind turbines, bridges, building exteriors, power lines and sewers.

Inspecting pipe

Lamppa and his business associates want to see pipeline monitoring evolve from what they refer to as an archaic process.

The current method for many companies is to fly a small plane along the pipeline right of way — which could be 75 to 100 feet wide and potentially hundreds of miles long — searching for potential problems.

This method is costly, time-prohibitive and often inaccurate, according to Lamppa.

“I don’t really see the efficacy there,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that make me say ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’ “

After receiving a grant in February, Lamppa said he and partners at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are working on getting a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. The certificate is needed to legally fly unmanned aircraft.

Eventually, Lamppa and his associate envision either a series of small UAS stationed at various lengths along pipelines that automatically inspect a section of ground or a larger aircraft that can analyze longer tracts of land.

The test processing would run about 18 months, according to Lamppa.

Ground to air

The potential uses of unmanned aircraft created by Ellis and SkySpecs span from under the ground to the tops of structures.

Currently, inspecting a wind turbine requires the inspector to climb to the top of the 200-300-foot structure, select the blades one by one by applying a brake and then rappelling to the end the blade.

The process takes about four hours and costs an average of $1,500 per tower, according to Ellis. By substituting a UAS for a human, the cost plummets to $100 and the inspection length is cut to one hour.

The technology is expected to have a similar effect on inspections of other structures. Bridge inspections could drop from $10,000 to $15,000 over the course of a few weeks to $1,000 to $3,000 over two to three days.

In sewers, the average rate is $20,000 per mile for inspection, which usually spans one mile per day. UAS inspections could cut that price in half.

“The inspectors, they just want the data.” Ellis said. “They don’t care how they get it, they just want the data. And so we’ve tried to make it as easy for them to fly as possible.”

The company is working with a wind energy company, Upward Solution, on a certificate of authorization for Texas, where one of its large wind farms could provide a testing ground.

The technology could eventually make its way to North Dakota, which is a major wind power producer.