Drone to the rescue

When a leak in a boiler at a coal-fired power station in Limpopo recently threatened electricity supply, a drone was deployed to carry out an assessment of the damage – marking the first time the utility had used the technology for confined-space emergency inspection.

Operated by Johannesburg-based Skyriders Access Specialists, the craft – fitted with camera and lighting systems – was used to survey the boiler’s interior, pinpointing the location of a leaking tube and photographing the area and its surrounds for damage.

“The client required an urgent visual assessment,” says Mike Zinn, marketing manager of Skyriders Access Specialists. “Traditionally, scaffolding or other time-consuming means of access would have had to have been constructed before an inspection of the boiler could be carried out.”

The Swiss-made drone – an Elios Sky Eye – was able to take high-definition photographs of the leaking tube. While the craft had been used at the power station on two previous occasions for inspection purposes, the incident marked the first time it had been called upon in an emergency situation.

“Skyriders dispatched a two-person team that was quickly on site and able to get the drone into the boiler as soon as possible,” says Zinn, adding that the incident highlighted the effectiveness of drone technology. “Health and safety aspects have improved dramatically for on-site crews in such projects, allowing specialised teams to enter only once the situation has been thoroughly analysed and verified.”

Imported from Flyability of Switzerland, the drone incorporates a full high-definition camera, a thermal camera and an LED lighting system with remotely adjustable intensity. It can be piloted into usually inaccessible places up to many hundred metres beyond line of sight thanks to its wireless communication system and live video feedback.

“The main issue in this project was accessibility. The area in which the damage occurred was difficult to get to. Here, the collision-tolerance feature of the drone meant it was able to reach the affected area quickly and reliably. The fact that the pilot was fully trained and qualified meant that inspection work could be carried out rapidly and professionally, producing real-time results for the client,” Zinn maintains.

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