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New Age of Drones: Flying Detectors to Inspect Aging Infrastructure

Blog post   •   Jul 10, 2017 06:18 GMT

Aerial photography, surveying, logistics and even in agriculture – Industrial drones are starting to be used in various applications. Many companies are looking to enter the market which is expected to grow ten times from now to 2020. Under such trend, engineers from different sectors are collaborating to develop new applications for the technology.

One example of such collaboration was led by Toshiba and Alpine Electronics, to co-develop a drone-based system to monitor and inspect electric power infrastructure. The Alpine Electronics Testing Center in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, covers a wide area of 53,000m2. This site is used to test automotive equipment featuring various driving environments, including tunnels, slopes and poor road surfaces. Toshiba and Alpine currently uses this facility as the base to conduct test flights of innovative drone technology they have jointly developed.

With very little sound, the drone makes a smart takeoff, flying at an easy speed of 70km/h. It quickly completes a 1km circuit around the course before making a quiet landing. Various flight patterns were tested. Sometimes the drone makes a quick tour around the control tower where the project team is watching the flight through the control screen. And sometimes it flies along the power lines provided by an electric power company.

 Coordination between the program and sensors is the key for success to control a drone on autopilot. Repeated test flights are supervised carefully from the control tower.

Here Comes Drones for Safer and Quicker Inspection!

Toshiba and Alpine have been collaborating in the automotive sector and was seeking opportunities to work together in new business domains.

 “We assembled a team composed of 10 people or so from both companies and held several meetings. At first, we brainstormed and came up with 58 ideas, out of which we focused the resources of both companies on the most feasible concepts. There were a few promising candidates, including automotive solutions. In the end, drone technology was judged to be the best candidate”, says Takahiro Ono from Alpine.

The drone co-development project began in May 2015.

 “We started coming up with possible business scenarios that drone technology can be applied to”, says Koji Matsuda from Toshiba. “Aging infrastructure is an urgent issue for Japan today. So, we thought, why not use drones to inspect them? We decided to focus on inspection of power infrastructure, as we can also utilize Toshiba’s connections with the electric utilities.”

Toshiba members from left to right: Koji Matsuda, Akira Fujii and Keisuke Sanda

Inspections of power lines and steel towers are usually done visually by experienced workers. In mountainous areas, inspection work can be time consuming due to long distance travels, and the mountain terrain makes work difficult and dangerous. Drones offer a safer and quicker way of inspecting power lines that exist at high altitude, and to check tall steel towers, improving work efficiency and safety.
“We thought this might be a business opportunity for us. But before we decide to go on with the project, we needed to check if this was feasible or not. Mr. Sanda and I visited and conducted interviews with regional electric utilities in Japan to see how they currently carry out their maintenance operations, and how drones might be able to assist.” says Akira Fujii of Toshiba.
“In order to make power infrastructure inspection services a feasible business, high levels of reliability was necessary to ensure safety of the service. We have been developing the industrial drone system through close communication with each members of the companies. In terms of project management, we need to overcome issues that arise from differences in corporate culture and barriers. To solve that, the most important starting point is to listen to the voice of the customer (VoC),” says Hideyuki Shuto of Alpine.

From Alpine (l to r): Hideyuki Shuto, Shigeo Aoyagi and Takahiro Ono

IoT & Autopilot technologies take off to ensure safety and reliability
Through repeated trial-and-error, the project is making progress towards the target commercialization date of April 2018. Development work is still ongoing on autopilot technology to fly drones safely and efficiently, and auto-detection technology to quickly detect damages of infrastructure. Project members remain enthusiastically engaged to overcome technical judgment points that are set in several development steps.

 “As we assume that drones would be used in heights such as mountainous areas and coastal terrains and to be allowed for intense use, aiming for safe and highly efficient flights is never ending. At this test site, we are conducting programs to test drones to fly along the power line slacks, and also to check our fail-safe* design to ensure safety. We are also sharing images of steel towers and power lines taken by drones with power utililtiy companies to receive their feedback. We are developing our technology with an emphasis on safety and reliability”, says Shigeo Aoyagi of Alpine.

*Fail-safe designs ensure devices to maintain safe operations in the event of a fault or error

Keisuke Sanda of Toshiba says, “While Alpine developed a reliable autopilot system, at Toshiba, we have leveraged our strengths in image recognition, processing technologies and in AI. We have used this expertise to develop auto-detection system so that drones can quickly identify damages of steel towers and power lines. The combination of autopilot and auto-detection technologies is what we think will give this service a competitive edge. We are looking in to utilizing voice recognition as well to make maintenance operations more efficient. Our goal is to boost the overall efficiency of the infrastructure maintenance process while helping to make it safer and more reliable.”
Alpine’s autopilot technology realizes reliable and efficient flights, and Toshiba's technology ensures accurate image recognition and auto-detection. The resources that both companies have cultivated through years of service development will lift the drone service for take-off.