Droning on: Flying inspection robots make building assessments a breeze

From farming to security, drones are being developed for almost every application imaginable, and now, thanks to team in Germany, building renovation is no different.

In much of Europe, and in Germany in particular, there is high demand for renovation of buildings that have taken damage or wear due to age or environmental exposure, which requires detailed inspections of their exterior.

Normally this is a lengthy process, particularly when large outside sections such as wide façades need to be accessed. It also can be hampered by errors: inspections are largely done by eye and marked on 2D paper maps.

However, with the development of a custom octocopter, this could soon change.

A creation of Christian Eschmann, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Non-Destructive Testing IZFP in Saarbrücken, Germany, the “flying inspection robots” are equipped with eight rotors to allow them to reach as high as 11 storeys.

octocopter

The octocopter is equipped to scan masonry for cracks, chips or structural defects from a distance of 2 metres. A high-definition digital camera also snaps detailed images of the building, with around 1,200 images generated in a 15 minute flight, providing a clear picture of the complete structure.

Additional sensors measure wind speeds and ensure the octocopter remains stable, preventing crashes or collisions with the building.

Inspections of tall or unusually shaped buildings can be immensely time consuming, and even require the use of professional abseilers, cranes, helicopters or scaffolding, but Eschmann believes this drone approach will be far quicker and easier.

“To inspect their condition and prevent hazards to people, a lot of effort still has to be devoted to buildings that are difficult to access,” he said.

“For a 20 by 80 meter wide façade, a test engineer needs about two to three days. Our octocopter needs three to four hours for this.”

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At present the octocopter only functions as a remote-control vehicle, but Eschmann and his team are looking to make the technology autonomous, through the development of specialist navigation sensors.

These sensors will follow a system that Eschmann compared to “flying on rails”; they will be able to move from one side of the building to the other, floor-by-floor, allowing for a systematic assessment of the whole building.

Given the challenges and time involved in traditional building inspections, the technology is likely to prove highly popular, however Eschmann was keen to stress that the octocopter would be a support tool, rather a technology destined to take jobs.

“Our micro-airplane is no substitute for experts or a close-up inspection,” he said.


Featured image courtesy of Uwe Bellhäuser via Fraunhofer. Body image 2 courtesy of Leo Reynolds.


Farm by air: Agricultural drones take to the skies

The first drones designed for agricultural purposes are now being used on farms, marking the start of a move towards more advanced technology being used in the industry.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in question scans a field of wheat or oilseed rape and provides accurate data about which areas require fertiliser. This ensures the fertiliser is not over-used, reducing waste and saving money.

Developed by French company Airinov, the drone is already proving a hit with those who have tried it; in the last year more than 2,000 farmers have used the UAV, known as Agridrone, to cover more than 20,000 hectares of land.

France has embraced drones for civilian uses, such as aerial filming, far quicker than many other countries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the country is the first to see drones used in food production.

“French farmers are the first in the world to use the new possibilities offered by drones in the fields, and it is not a coincidence,” said Airinov founder Romain Faoux, in a press release translated from French.

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Airinov was keen to stress that the technology is designed to help farmers, rather than replace them.

It contains sensors to measure nitrogen concentrations – nitrogen is required for plants to grow, but too much can be damaging to the environment.

With an accurate picture of where and how much more nitrogen is required, farmers can mix appropriate fertilizer and apply it only where needed, saving them money and ensuring they comply with regulations.

The drone is designed to be simple to use, with accompanying software that has a clear, user-friendly display.  Farmers who purchase the drones are giving full training in its use, which takes just two days.

The first farmer to purchase an Agridrone, Jean-Baptiste Bruggeman, believes the drone has significant benefits for farmers.

“I am so convinced of the relevance of this tool that I decided to invest in a drone myself to perform flights on my farm and for other farmers,” he said. “This new technology will democratize because it is accessible to all farmers regardless of the size of operations, the geographical location and the age of the operator.”

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Predictions about the role of these drones in farming have been circling for some time, but until recently the idea was largely a part of futurists’ talks at trade conferences.

Now with farmers seeing the benefits of the technology, it is likely that other drones for farming and agriculture will become available.

There is even hope that these technologies will help to attract younger people to the profession, which has suffered a decline in interest among many young people.

“The use of this new technology has the advantage of highlighting the appeal of farming and arousing the interest of young people,” said Bruggeman. “It can help maintain the earth for a new generation who might be tempted to leave this activity.”


Images courtesy of Airinov.