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The use of drones for the inspection of boilers

Technology increasingly present in inspection and monitoring operations

In the last few years, drones have been widely used in diverse fields and for diverse purposes.

Utilized initially in the military sphere or for recreational purposes, drones are now used in numerous markets in support of various industries. Drones are used, for example, for home deliveries, for aerial photography, filming and monitoring of specific areas.    

Striving constantly for technological innovation, we have started an innovation project involving the experimental use of indoor drones for the inspection of boilers.  

This initiative aims to move us towards the digitalization of inspection, improving control quality, enabling greater repeatability (annual inspection of boilers) and a simplified data recording process. 

CUTTING COSTS IN INSPECTION AND MAINTENANCE ACTIVITIES

The energy sector handles a multitude of assets like boilers, smokestacks, transformers and other equipment, all needing regular inspection.

Analysis of the main problems affecting boilers has shown that, inside exhaust gas flues, the shock waves caused by combustion can lead to cases of erosion/corrosion and structural damage.  The same problems also occur in smokestacks, where silencers are subject to acid corrosion from the fumes. 

Given the height above ground of inspection points (about 10 metres in the case of boilers and 20 metres for smokestacks), in both cases, scaffolding has to be erected and operatives have to work in confined spaces at considerable heights.

THE ARRIVAL OF DRONES IN HYDRO-ELECTRIC AND THERMO-ELECTRIC FACILITIES

With the introduction of FLY in CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine), we have developed a drone able to provide support in inspection activities. With their great agility, drones can handle the monitoring and maintenance of areas to be inspected, like the large boilers found in thermo-electric systems, more rapidly and more accurately

This technology is currently being used at various facilities, including all thermo-electric plants – with the first trials taking place at the Sermide thermo-electric power plant – and also the hydro-electric plant in Calabria
 

MAXIMIZING SAFETY, CUTTING COSTS

The advantages are numerous, ranging from greater protection of the workforce to time-cost optimization

More specifically, the main benefits fall into the following areas:

  • Improvement in safety: by making use of drones in preliminary checks, workers are exposed to fewer risks and safety is increased. Another important aspect is the possibility to carry out legally required regular checks in a non-invasive way, without the need for internal inspections of plant by safety officials or maintenance staff, thus reducing the exposure of workers in confined spaces (in accordance with HSE risk reduction norms set out in Italian law).
  • Possibility to carry out surveys in less accessible areas: inspection sites at height and in confined spaces or otherwise difficult or dangerous for workers to reach can be easily and safely accessed through the use of drones.
  • Cost reduction: the drone solution also confers a significant economic advantage and a reduction in expenses given the fact that there is no need to resort to scaffolding or other machinery, at least in the initial phase of checks. Being able to avoid certain operations (opening of panels, erection of scaffolding, preparation for pressing, mechanical support for forced ventilation) means that it is possible to proceed to more costly activities only where any breakage or failure has been observed. 
  • Time efficiency: the use of this technology enables greater rapidity of intervention, with the added benefit of being able to keep production down-time to a minimum.
  • Greater data quality and accuracy: drones can gather a huge amount of visual data and images with which to visually identify and evaluate anomalies. Moreover, the use of this technology enables more accurate and detailed monitoring (with the aid of topographic software if necessary), while also allowing the collection of material samples by means of supplementary non-destructive testing (NDT).

TIMES HALVED THANKS TO STATE-OF-THE-ART TECHNOLOGIES

Analysis of initial data gathered at facilities where this technology has been in use and then compared with data provided by traditional inspection work has provided important results, which can be summarized as follows:

  • 100% sites inspectable with quality suitable for visual evaluation, detail and image brightness exceeding expectations;
  • >85% outside confined spaces (this percentage could increase further with the aid of 3D models);
  • -60% time reduction (10 days with traditional methods vs. 4 days with the use of drones);
  • -88% cost reduction (45,000-50,000 euros with traditional methods vs. 4,000-7,000 euros with the use of drones).

In conclusion, then, this technological innovation makes it possible to work more safely, to carry out monitoring activities more quickly, to save time and improve the quality of information, which can be gathered and stored in a database.

Innovation projects for the Energy Transition