Field operations remain at the heart of industrial production and manufacturing. While they are also an important driver of a nation’s economy – road and highways construction, power generation and transmission networks, cross-country oil and gas pipelines to sustainable power generation.
Field operations are an all-inclusive package of activities that directly contribute towards clockwork precision of nation states.
The important need for their maintenance therefore becomes an enormous task which has to be routine, thorough and on-time. Not only does this demand a whole different set of workforce from the usual but also the technology, which can meet the challenging and demanding work conditions. It becomes an absolute requirement for such technologies to stay ahead of the curve.
Some of the emerging technologies have been used to a great effect in improving field operations. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or popularly known as drones have become the eye-in-the-sky delivering quantifiable gains in some of the previously unknown or undiscovered areas of field operations.
Flare stack inspection is a complex and highly challenging task which would normally require a trained person to climb hundreds of feet to work at height, inspecting the stacks, their condition and procuring optimal imagery for analysis, later. Live flare stack inspection by manual method is unthinkable due to the significant amount of risk involved. Drones, controlled by on-ground trained pilots can hover around live or dormant flare stacks and take high-res images from all the angles and sides with instant data delivery mitigating downtime.
Same is the case with power transmission lines and pylons that require routine monitoring to ensure their condition. Standing exposed to the elements of nature means that rust and structural defects can affect the integrity of these networks. Drones are used to undertake video and images, thermal inspection and insulator inspection along with corridor mapping and digital terrain modeling to help in low level planning of overhead powerlines as well as their overall maintenance.
Similarly, Indian government has allowed GAIL (Gas Authority of India ltd.) for drone based aerial surveillance of their pipelines. The laborious regular and periodic foot-patrolling or highly expensive helicopter hiring has been replaced on a 200 km stretch of Hazira Vijaipur Jagdishpur/ Dahej Vijaipur with drone surveillance. The safety and reliability of vast network of pipelines can be monitored for factors such as sabotage, exposure, soil erosion and excavation to construction works.
National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) are already employing drone surveillance and monitoring for better planning of road asset management that will be part of the detailed project reports for future road constructions. Indian Railways is undertaking a similar approach for project monitoring, maintenance of tracks and other related activities which was announced in January 2018.
Drones also bolster the renewables sector with inspection of wind turbines and massive arrays of photovoltaic solar panels. Armed with infrared cameras, normal cameras along with other sophisticated instruments, drones have made solar PV inspection and management lot simpler reporting accurate data on panel efficiency, saving hundreds of hours of manual inspection. Offshore wind farms are exposed to salt water winds and therefore require higher frequency of inspections which drones can easily undertake cutting down sizeable amount of risk.
Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has already defined the rules for UAVs or drones defining weight based categories, no-fly zones and the overall scope which would govern the flight of such lightweight vehicles in India.
A slightly more intimate yet similarly proactive solution becoming a mainstream of techno-commercial market are the Wearables. These can described as products at four-way junction of design, science, safety and technology. This device can be worn on a belt and whenever the person moves into a position of excessive bending, lifting, twisting or reaching, the devices nudges them and records their move based on the required ergonomics plan. This solution equipped with the right plan effectively reduced poor ergonomic movements on a daily basis by as much as 96 percent over a 4 week pilot study in workers.
Similarly, vests with sensors monitoring vitals of a worker or sensors embedded in the hardhat of workers are available in the market that can allow activities such as lone work, confined space work or work at height to become better managed.
These approaches combine the wearables and industrial Internet of Things (IoT) to deliver another method towards tackling workplace safety. However, as is the case with any emerging technology that is being touted in the markets, its defined and measurable benefits need to be assessed.
Privacy of worker data, usage, management and data protection along with determination of the ‘right’ system are few of the factors among many that organisations would need to ascertain and understand before diving into use of such technologies.
However, most businesses trying to push these technologies forward have shown a willingness to collaborate and develop adaptable solutions. With an increasing list of well-established names becoming attached to adopting such emerging technologies, more and more products targeting specific areas of field operations would soon become available.