Deploying drones in field service

IFS Australia

By Bas de Vos*
Monday, 12 December, 2016


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We hear a lot about digital transformation these days. However, digital transformation is not just applying new technologies to do something different from before. It’s also about doing what you do today but better. It’s about innovating in new products and services and transforming your business model for competitive advantage.

We want to inspire organisations to get more out of their business applications by connecting new technology with their people and processes. So IFS Labs looked at what drones had to offer. In many industries, drones now offer a way to realign resources, gather data, reduce costs, ensure safety, optimise processes and increase efficiency. Combining that with other new technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), enlarges the opportunity even more.

We recently demonstrated a prototype that showcased an actual flying drone connected to our IFS Applications enterprise software using our new IoT Business Connector. To create a proof of concept combining drones with enterprise software to provide real business value, we looked at aerial power line inspections in forested areas.

Autonomous power line inspections

While aerial power lines are generally easier to run and more cost-effective to build, they are also vulnerable to severe weather. If a tree falls on a power line, it disrupts service and typically requires a helicopter to be sent out for inspection. Drones are more cost-effective than helicopters in doing such an inspection.

We went a step further, using computer image analysis to allow the drone to work fully autonomously. The drone flies over the power line, where the video that the drone provides is processed in real time, detecting any obstructions, and those observations are sent through the IFS IoT Business Connector to IFS Applications. Then, a work order can automatically be scheduled and dispatched in the most optimal way.

The integration with business software is what makes the proof of concept so exciting. We demonstrated that linking a drone directly into a business application could effectively multiply its value out in the field. If you look at drones standalone, they are already cheaper to operate than a helicopter. They cost less and require fewer people to operate. In addition, the drone can work autonomously. When you add in advanced analytics such as computer image analysis and connect it to business applications you can gain even further efficiencies.

Making field engineers more productive

Enterprise software can perform scheduling and route optimisation on the work orders that the drone creates. Then the field engineers contracted to fix the breaks that the drone has logged can also do their work more efficiently. The software could also work out what spare parts are needed and produce a plan to deploy engineers in the optimal way. The exact GPS coordinates would be sent through to their mobile devices, along with any other information required to complete the job.

We can think of dozens of applications for drones working in combination with enterprise software to transform existing ways of doing things. Oil and gas pipeline inspections, environmental inspections, inspections of hard-to-reach transmission towers or industrial equipment — everywhere you have a difficult or dangerous place to get to, drones can help to make people safer and more efficient.

Then there are all the places drones can be used for deliveries. If I am an engineer on an offshore oil rig, I can use a drone to deliver urgently needed supplies. Even better, if the drone was connected to business software, deliveries could be scheduled whenever spare parts were running low. The software could also plan the contents of each delivery to optimise the load weight for maximum efficiency.

Changes to laws and regulations

Unfortunately, organisations can’t deploy all these drone applications right now. Legislation in Australia — and most other developed countries — restricts the height that drones can fly and requires them to remain in line of sight of an operator. While this might be important in populated areas, exceptions should probably be made for applications like remote powerline and pipeline inspections. But first you need to have organisations that are willing to do it and make a case to change the laws and regulations that are holding them back.

Our proof of concept shows how the power of digital transformation doesn’t lie in individual technologies, but in combining new technologies in an integrated way. It’s how you connect these technologies with people and processes to solve problems within your business or your industry that makes a difference. And maybe we’ll need to update some laws as well. What we have demonstrated with drones, the Internet of Things and business software for aerial power line inspections is just a taste of what’s to come.

*As Director of IFS’s in-house technology think tank, IFS Labs, Bas de Vos is responsible for innovation projects that illustrate the future of enterprise software. de Vos and his team research and develop ideas that derive from concepts and technologies beyond the usual context of traditional enterprise IT.

Image credit: © Tomasz Zajda/Dollar Photo Club

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