Mobile, manageable and convenient in all environments: drones are wonderful tools for carrying out inspections, mapping and data-gathering on industrial sites.
To deal with growing needs, in July 2015 EDF Group created a drone expertise centre. Its aim: to develop knowledge about drones and increase their use within the company.
Multifunctional and multiservice drones
Whether to map a site, check the level of corrosion in a building or detect a leak, drones are increasingly being used by industrial firms. They offer the advantage of being able to reach areas that are difficult, if not impossible, for humans to access; they also allow inspections to be carried out more frequently and facilitate improved diagnostics thanks to the speed with which data can be collected and exhaustive readings obtained on structures. They also reduce the logistical resources that are needed and are less intrusive on their surroundings.
The Drone Expertise Centre at the service of the Group’s businesses
As one of the first French industrial firms to use drones for inspection and surveillance of its installations, EDF has decided to build on this expertise through the Drone Expertise Centre. This Centre is aimed at providing the Group’s businesses with solutions and technical guides in order to respond to needs at its various power production facilities. Its role is one of oversight: by monitoring the development of the technology and of regulations it will be able to identify new equipment and new potential applications. It is in charge of testing new and innovative drone solutions with a view to applying them in the future. Its role is also to amplify these uses by providing practical guidance in the integration of drones and by pooling feedback for the company as a whole.
Evaluation of the drones on offer
The Centre keeps an eye on the various available models and on the range of sensors that can be used with them. It can thus evaluate what is available on the market and how these options might help the Group’s various businesses meet their challenges. There is a wide range of drones equipped to deal with the different conditions and challenges at power production facilities. Land drones, for instance, can be used for inspections in confined spaces, such as pipelines and, more generally, in hard-to-reach areas. In the air, drones will be useful in carrying out environmental monitoring of sites or precise mapping, thanks to which the smallest cracks will be detectable. Underwater, drones will also be useful in mapping, but also in carrying out low-risk inspections of galleries without needing to empty them, for instance.
The use of drones for aerial shooting is a well-developed solution for quickly surveying the state of structures
Coline Brothier, Director of the Drone Expertise Centre
Drones: a major role in the inspection of EDF sites
A year and a half after the creation of the Expertise Centre, this work of referencing and validation of technical benefits is already bearing fruit. “The use of drones for aerial shooting is a well-developed solution for quickly surveying the state of structures,” explains Coline Brothier, director of the Drone Expertise Centre. “We are thus going to launch a framework contract in order to deploy this solution with selected operators close to power production plants.” In the area of civil engineering - operation and renovation of structures -, tests are already underway to optimise the amount of data collection while still being able to detect infra-millimetric cracks. The Centre produces and keeps up to date a technical guide containing information on the development of regulations, a reference guide of evaluated service providers, model specifications for each type of use, a services checklist in order to harmonise knowledge and practices among the Group’s staff, and to ensure that drones are used in the safest possible manner.
Processing of data with a view to using it
Obtaining data is only the first step. It must then be processed in order to extract useful information for the various businesses, which offers new challenges with regard to current solutions. Didier Boldo, an expert in data processing, is in charge of a project within EDF's R&D department, whose goal is to meet this data-processing challenge: “Drones produce much more data, which is often of varying quality. That means that a lot of the process has to be automated. Data-processing is thus a major challenge when it comes to using these solutions operationally. This is the main area of collaboration between EDF’s R&D and the Drone Expertise Centre.”
The 5 areas where drone-use has potential benefits
Safety and accessibility
Respect for the environment
Social responsibility: developing a sector for the future
Developing new 100%-EDF drone models
But the role of the Centre goes much beyond this: “We also want to develop ad hoc solutions, in response to challenges that are specific to EDF,” adds Coline Brothier. EDF is behind the creation of the drone that goes by the name of Notil’e. This drone has been specially conceived to carry out underwater environmental monitoring: bathymetry, water sampling, recording of fish stocks in rivers, etc. A prototype has been developed in collaboration with a start-up, and EDF is going to buy this nautical drone for use around its dams. Another experiment is underway to install miniature LIDAR sensors - much used in topography (until now they were too heavy) - on aerial drones in order to obtain precise images of changes in vegetation around power lines.
Drones that are increasingly intelligent
When it comes to developing specific solutions, the major focus in the coming years will involve the intelligence of drones. For Coline Brothier, “the challenge is to be able to programme each flight and to have the drone safely carry out its missions with decision-making autonomy, for instance managing to carry out its mission even when losing track of its GPS position or encountering obstacles in its path.”
A network of firms using drones
The third “hat” worn by the EDF Drone Expertise Centre is that of advisor. Naturally, it acts to advise technical coordinators within the company, and to share up-to-date technical and regulatory information about drones and their uses. But the Drone Expertise Centre also plays an active role alongside other industrial firms in France - SNCF, Enedis, RTE, GRDF, etc. - in an effort to have changes made to regulations limiting the use of civilian drones over long distances to devices weighing less than 2kg. The Centre’s experts are thus also involved in the National Committee on Civil Drones, whose aim is to structure the French drone sector in cooperation with the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC), drone operators and manufacturers, as well as research laboratories.
This advisory role is not limited to France. The Centre is also involved with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in actively sharing potential uses for these new tools. It has also worked closely with EDF’s R&D department in England on experiments using underwater drones that are going to be used to inspect offshore oil rigs. Finally, the Centre will be in South Korea to attend this year’s SMIRT (Structural Mechanics in Reactor Technology) conference and to present its research.