The rise of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones, has changed the landscape of the FM industry in many different arenas. From videography to agriculture, infrastructure and safety, the implementation of drones in every applicable sector has been meteoric. For the facility manager, this could spell a remarkable turning point in the evolution of automated systems, lower costs and higher rates of efficiency in the job.
The commercial applications market for UAS in 2016 was rounded off at about $2-billion. That number is projected to grow to $127-billion by 2020. Infrastructure is a business area which has been identified as best able to benefit from the use of UAS, resulting in a projected value of drone applications set at $45-billion in the next few years.
As all facility managers will know, one of the hallmarks of the job is inspecting large institutional, engineering, manufacturing, mining and commercial facilities; a difficult and oft-dangerous job. Another hallmark is ensuring that assets are performing reliably and consistently over time, keeping ageing infrastructure and depreciating assets in mind. So, the two sides of the coin are this: consistent inspection and a maximum efficiency-to-value ratio.
Now, drones have received attention for their ability to assist with these very conundrums. Drones give managers easier access to data, they have a lower cost and less risk, and they can be automated to perform similarly under any condition.
Let us take you through some of the major benefits a drone can bring to your workplace as a facility manager, beginning with inspection. Managers can use drones to inspect hard-to-access spaces using visual and thermal tools, light detection and ranging – and hyperspectral, gamma and magnetometer equipment. That’s already a lot more than the average pair of binoculars can handle!
Remote-controlled cameras, the ones attached to drones, can be used in a variety of ways to assist the FM. Real-time images of buildings, façades, rooftop machinery or inaccessible equipment can be critical in maintaining the integrity of said items.
Field technicians can use drones to monitor equipment performance of critical assets without risking their lives or putting themselves in hazardous situations. The added benefit to the health and wellness of staff is immeasurable. Another immeasurable benefit is the ability to compare prior inspections with real-time information, so that FMs can make faster, more beneficial decisions.
There are already quite a few examples out there of drones assisting in areas of facility maintenance.
- HVACS – For the average HVAC team, there are many difficult-to-access and/or dangerous areas in the everyday job. There are also major costs incurred during the regular scope of the job. Access equipment like aerial platforms, scaffolding and lifts is expensive but necessary; and consumes large amounts of time to set-up and disable. Using drones to collect the same data is far quicker and more cost effective.
- Buildings: high-rise and low-rise – Drones are able to do aerial surveys of large retail buildings to detect roof leaks, long before they are able to damage the interior in any long-lasting manner. They are also hugely effective at aerial property surveys. When it comes to low-rise buildings, drones can play a large part in façade inspections. One can use a drone to record a video of the building exterior, save the video and programme the route. By automating the video recording and repeating the flight pattern regularly, facility managers have progress footage of the exterior to compare against previous footage. This will assist in ascertaining the rate of decline and help prepare for a time when necessary maintenance will be needed.
- Quick Response Vehicles – One of the drones biggest advantages is its speed. Drones can get to a site faster than pretty much anything else. If a disaster situation occurs, drones can relay real-time, instantaneous information to the relevant authorities or safety personnel. This includes locating survivors, providing data for 3D renders or identifying deadly toxic waste or gas leaks.
- Producing 3D Maps – Drones are also replacing helicopters in parts of the world which utilise aerial photography and 3D maps for crude oil storage facilities. At a site like this, they use dirt works to contain any spillage from the oil tanks. As the dykes need to be a certain size to meet regulations, using the drone maps allowed workers to monitor the dirt works far more easily. Onsite monitoring was still necessary, but the effort was lowered exponentially.
- Potential Oil Spills – There is even progress being made in the arena of oil spills, and using drones to quickly determine the size of the spill at low cost and without endangering human life. This idea could be applied to forest fires and even – with a special camera – be used to help identify people trapped underground after earthquakes.
- Multiple Site Inspections – Businesses or institutions that are set out over multiple, spread-out sites, such as a university with numerous campuses, use drones to monitor their sites, construction sites, inspect building areas which are hard to get to and to keep an eye all landholdings. This helps to improve efficiency, worker safety and productivity while making significant cost savings.
But Are We Replacing Humans?
The short answer is no. While drones provide extensive benefits to humans in all applicable areas, when it comes to facilities maintenance, the argument states that they could never really take-over. Drones are more of a method to improve efficiency and lower costs. They are able to streamline and automate processes which assist humans in their daily interactions. However, facility managers will still need to be there to oversee the entire process.
What of Air Regulations?
The Civil Aviation Authority in the UK has already identified the major changes happening in the skies, and has provided the following Articles to dealing with UAS and other unmanned vehicles: https://www.caa.co.uk/Commercial-industry/Aircraft/Unmanned-aircraft/Small-drones/Regulations-relating-to-the-commercial-use-of-small-drones/
- Article 241 – Endangering safety of any person or property
- Article 94 – Small unmanned aircraft requirements
- Article 94A – Small unmanned aircraft; height restrictions on flights
- Article 94B – Small unmanned aircraft: restrictions on flights that are over or near aerodromes
- Article 95 – Small unmanned surveillance aircraft
It is imperative to ensure one has read up on, and adheres to, all of the relevant legislation before implementing the automation of certain FM processes with drones.
The Future; Now
The crux of the matter is that drones have filled a hole in the market that many people were unaware existed as little as five years ago. Now that they are here, we have only just begun to unlock their true potential. Using drones to maximise the lifespan of your assets as a facility manager certainly looks to be the route to take as quickly as possible. 2019 could well be the year where you recoup massive costs, automate more and more of your systems and discover yet another use for humanity’s new best friend. Get into the future. Get a drone.