Industry convergence is the blurring of boundaries across different industries to create growth opportunities arising from development of new products and technologies. Within this context, there is a fundamental shift occurring in the nondestructive testing (NDT) industry where convergence between inspection and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is creating a new market segment called aerial inspection. UAS or drone providers have been exploring applications within the industrial landscape.

Wind turbine inspection is the application where aerial inspection is currently witnessing the largest demand. The reason is purely economic. Currently, inspecting a wind turbine requires the inspector to climb a 200-300-foot structure, select the blades one by one by applying a brake and then rappel to the end the blade for inspection.

The process takes approximately four hours, costing around $1,500 per tower. Research finds that by substituting a UAS for a human inspection, the cost could plummet to $100 and the inspection length to one hour. The technology is expected to have a similar effect on inspections of other structures. Bridge inspections could drop from $10,000 to $15,000 over the course of a few weeks to $1,000 to $3,000 over two to three days. In sewers, the average rate is $20,000 per mile for inspection, which usually spans one mile per day. UAS inspections could cut that price in half.

The benefits of aerial inspection are quite evident; however, there do exist some challenges that need to be overcome for wide-scale adoption. From a technology stand point, currently, the sensors that are being integrated with the drones are extremely basic with limited functionality, accuracy, and control. To gather data which can be analysed to provide insights for critical decision making, advanced sensors need to be integrated with drones. System integrators are apprehensive about integrating costly advanced sensors with drones at the moment as the risk is considered quite high in case there is an accident.

Second, the drones being offered on the market right now cannot cope with tough weather and temperature conditions prevailing in environments of industries such as oil and gas, wind energy or solar energy. Hence, this is an area where the technology needs advancement.

Last, from an administration point of view, there needs to be standardization in the industry. Every manufacturer has his own systems, features, and functionality that do not comply with any particular standards. For instance, there is no particular standard established for collisions avoidance systems or awareness of commercial flights. These create greater apprehension for adoption from the end users.

Despite these challenges, the future for inspection using drones or aerial inspection looks promising. The drone industry is expected to be a $100 billion total addressable market over the next five years. If inspection is even 1% of this, it will be a billion dollar industry. Some of the companies that are already making a mark in this market are Sky Eye Innovations, DJI, Microdrones, Ascending Technologies, Aibotix, FORCE Technologies, Sharper Shape, and CyberHawk.

Frost & Sullivan conducts extensive research in the areas of nondestructive testing inspection services, condition monitoring and material testing among others. This article is the result of Frost & Sullivan’s continuous research in the NDT industry tracking latest developments that impact the current and future market development.

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