As businesses ready to reopen after novel coronavirus pandemic, industrial worksites have faced challenges with maintenance, staffing, and safety. Skygauge Robotics today announced a new aerial drone designed for inspecting construction sites, pipelines, and tanks. The system is able to make contact with surfaces for testing.
North York, Ontario-based Vectored Propulsion Technologies Inc. was founded in 2016 and came out of a research phase last year. It was originally named “Mobile Industrial Robotics” (not to be confused with the Danish mobile robot producer) and does business as Skygauge Robotics.
Inspection challenges and opportunities
Even if workers have not been present at oil and gas, utility, or other industrial facilities, routine inspections must still be performed to maintain safe operations and avoid disasters, noted Skygauge Robotics. For example, a faulty storage tank leaked 20,000 tonnes (5.2 million gallons) of diesel oil into a river in Russia and caused a state of emergency.
With increased pressure to reduce costs, minimize human involvement, and make work safer, inspection robots have emerged as the solution, said Skygauge. Aker BP, a Norwegian oil and gas producer, has used Boston Dynamics Inc.‘s Spot quadruped robot to remotely patrol its offshore rigs.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently granted temporary coronavirus exemptions so that a Texas oil and gas company could conduct drone flights while workers can’t come to its site. In addition, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has suggested that oil and gas companies should be “protecting or even scaling up technology” investments in the post-COVID-19 reopening.
Skygauge designs system to reduce staff time on site
Skygauge Robotics claimed that it has “reinvented the drone” to perform a wider range of industrial inspections and minimize worker time on site. Its drones tilt their rotors to fly with greater stability and closer to structures to conduct inspections. The company added that most drones perform only surface visual inspections with cameras.
“We had come up with this ‘thrust vectoring’ drone design and found that it could perform jobs not possible with current designs,” said Nikita Iliushkin, co-founder and CEO of Skygauge Robotics. “We found that by addressing the stability limitations, you could perform physical work tasks. This includes pressure washing, scrubbing, sanding, painting, and attaching a robotic arm for general work. Our vision is to create a workforce in the sky.”
“We went with ultrasonic testing at industrial sites because it was the most basic form of physical work, precisely attaching a sensor onto a designated target,” he told The Robot Report. “The biggest challenge was creating a new control system from the ground up that can utilize the full capabilities of the design.”
“Our customers wanted us to focus on functionality — tools,” said Iliushkin. “When compared with the current methods — workers on ropes and scaffolding — reduced flight time is not impactful because there is a large magnitude of time savings. In the future, we plan to use a tethered power source to further increase the flight time and productivity.”
Drone reaches out to touch structures
The Skygauge includes a novel arm-mounted sensor, which comes into contact with pipes, pressure vessels, and storage containers to detect cracks beneath the surface. Currently, such inspections are expensive, dangerous, and time-consuming because they are performed by workers on scaffolding.
“We use an industry-standard ultrasonic thickness gauge that uses sound waves to measure the wall thickness,” explained Iliushkin. “The same way doctors use ultrasound to look inside people, inspectors use ultrasound it to look inside of metals to measure the metal wall or find cracks. The probe can be mounted on different angles of the drone to it can contact surfaces directly above or below the structure.”
“The Skygauge measures metal wall thickness in the exact same location over time — for example, every 6 months — to find if the metal wall of a pipe or pressure vessel is getting thinner,” he said. “If the wall gets too thin, maintenance needs to be performed.”
Skygauge said that its system can enable a team of two inspectors to complete a two-week job in two days, reducing time on site by 80%. Training operators takes only two to three days, said Iliushkin.
What about wear and tear on the sensors? “The transducer — the ultrasonic testing instrument — will last indefinitely because it’s built for this. There’s also a soft plastic tip which protect its from damage,” Iliushkin said. “The cup that holds the inspection equipment may experience wear over time and need a replacement every one to two years.”
Skygauge conducts field trials and plans for the future
Skygauge Robotics said it is engaged with over 100 potential customers and has demonstrations planned with 10 Fortune 500 global companies. The startup said it is working with inspectors, pilots, and industrial facilities to test the technology and bring it to market over the next several months.
Iliushkin noted that Skygauge is part of the Shell GameChangers program, which offers development funding upon successful demonstration of a technology.
“Our goal is to get people out of dangerous environments, and the need for this has never been greater because of COVID-19,” stated Iliushkin. “This technology is primarily used on refineries, offshore platforms, ships, wind turbines, and bridges. As our technology and company mature, we will expand into other forms of physical work. In the next one to three years, we’re planning to release attachments for more inspection methods, painting, and a wire brush for cleaning surfaces ”
So far, Skygauge has received $400,000 in pre-seed funding from investors including SOSV Investments LLC and the HAX accelerator, as well as Hello Ventures. The company said it is getting ready for a larger round to respond to demand for more pilot projects and commercial deployments.
“As soon as we close our next funding round, we’re hiring an additional six engineers and one business developer,” said Iliushkin.
Skygauge Robotics said its early-adopter client list was filled during the lockdown, but it is now accepting preorders for its commercial launch in 2021. The company is offering its system as a full-service lease to inspection teams.