With drones, energy firms get an eye in the sky

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Companies like RIL, NTPC use them for surveillance, inspection, theft detection

Mumbai, June 16

Indian energy companies are taking the usage of drones to literally new heights.

From keeping an eye on the plants for mishaps and fires to helping in carrying out audits and inspections, the companies are flying in drones for a long list of tasks.

Corporate giants such as Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and NTPC are in the process of carrying out studies for the various applications.

RIL wants to use drones to undertake inspection of chimney stacks, which are essential but inaccessible areas of petrochemical complexes.

NTPC wants to deploy drones for its solar plants which are spread over vast areas. The drones will help in intrusion detection. It has also already carried out some pilot sorties with drones for topographical studies of upcoming power plants.

The companies are waiting for the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to bring into force the draft guidelines on drones, which were issued in April. Only then do they expect to fully exploit the potential of drones.

Greater heights

A senior RIL executive told BusinessLine that other than the obvious security applications such as surveillance, the company is considering deploying drones to improve inspection of facilities, especially equipment and structures which are placed at a significant height.

“If you have to inspect pieces of equipment and chimneys which are mounted at an elevation, then plant operators have to wait for a shutdown.

“But with drones the inspection can be done in real time. Sometimes the plant shutdowns are governed by these difficult-to-reach inspections.

“If we use drones for the inspections then the uptime time of the refinery could be increased, which will add to the revenues,” the executive said.

The issue in India is that the regulations are not very clear and permissions are required from multiple agencies for flying a drone.

RIL’s Jamnagar plant, for example, is located in a security sensitive area. Therefore, the company has approached all regulatory authority for clearances, the executive said.

NTPC, which has aggressively entered the solar power space, is also toying with the idea of deploying drones at solar farms in Andhra Pradesh, spread over hundreds of acres.

A senior NTPC manager said the drones would be primarily used for surveillance and intrusion detection. Pilferage is rampant in solar farms, and drones are seen to deter them. When thefts occur solar panels gets de-charged, which reduces power output. Drones could be deployed in real time for detecting the thefts, the manager said.

NTPC in an email statement said recently the company for the first time had used drones for an aerial topographical survey of a solar plant site at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. In future also NTPC plans to use them at other sites as well as for survey, surveillance and predictive maintenance.

Competitive edge

Anand Pattani, India head of global engineering and consulting company Black & Veatch, said as drone use becomes more accepted, those companies working to provide design, engineering and construction services to utilities will be required to posses drone capabilities. This will spur significant competition since the cost of drone technology is not a barrier. As a result, just owning the equipment will not be a differentiator.

The innovative things one can do with the data captured by drones will create the competitive advantage, Pattani said.

In spite of repeated efforts RIL management was not available for comments.

Published on June 16, 2016

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