Zhang Weiliang, CEO of UAV company Avetics Global, explains how the use of drones & automation are increasingly becoming part of the future for tank storage maintenance.

The concept of using a drone to inspect a storage tank is a concept often mentioned in the storage industry, and several potential means of implementing the technology have been explored. However, as with all technologies, there is always a risk that an attempt to solve too many problems with a single product would end up as a solution in search of a problem to solve. New technologies are only viable when the technology developer has a thorough understanding of challenges encountered during operations.

Avetics Global, a UAV company with extensive history performing high-detail aerial inspection services for oil majors, building managers and ship owners, has built and optimised a drone with a single objective in mind: to provide high-quality comprehensive coverage of the internal surfaces of a storage tank so that clients can save time, money and workat-height risk when conducting maintenance operations of their assets.

Using the Aquila drone, clients can perform a 100% visual inspection of a tank within a single day, generating high-detail photography of the entire tank inner surface with no interruptions and all archived for easy referencing.

Identifying the Problems

Maintaining the condition of storage tanks is of critical importance to the modern economy. As tank farms get older, the list of things to be checked for expands as well. The consequences of a storage tank failure from contamination, fire, loss or other types of damages can be severe, thus necessitating an expanding list of inspection and maintenance requirements.

With so many potential problems needing to be solved, it has become necessary for asset owners and inspection companies to temper expectations. It becomes clear not all problems are equal in severity, and some problems are more suited to using drones to solve than other issues.

Feedback from tank asset owners has been crucial in identifying which problems require greater attention, as well as the deficiencies of existing solutions. Commercial off the shelf solutions (COTS) provide some benefit to clients, but other problems are introduced as well which ultimately negate the potential utility of said COTS solutions. It is by focusing on those specific problems that Avetics has been able to develop the Aquila in-tank inspection drone.

Customising Solutions

Built specifically to address these problems, the Avetics Aquila is a semi-autonomous confined-space drone designed to perform internal inspection of oil tanks, representing the culmination of two years of research and development by the Singaporean UAV company.

The Avetics Aquila provides close range visual intelligence at reduced risk to operators, generating an uninterrupted and unobstructed stabilised live feed with position localisation thanks to on-board lasers. Unhindered by radio interference, the Aquila can quickly and safely obtain high quality location-contextualised images in the challenging environment of the inside of the tank.

Avetics has focused on developing a UAV that can deliver an uninterrupted live video feed to the operator on the ground, and the additional benefit from the high-endurance Aquila is that a 100% high-detail inspection of a tank can be conducted within a single day.

Moreover, the images recorded cover the totality of the tank surfaces, offering complete coverage of the tank condition for audit and record keeping.

Reaping Immediate Benefits

By using the Aquila solution, Avetics can entirely reduce the need for erecting scaffolding just to gather information. An inspector can get stabilised, uninterrupted video, and identify areas of key interest. This ability to pinpoint areas requiring attention in such a short timespan means that asset owners can reduce the time needed to shut down the asset to perform maintenance work, increasing overall site utilisation rates as a result.

Sowing for the Future

In this modern technological era, it is easy to get caught up in the exciting possibilities of new technologies. Avetics has leveraged on extensive experience performing UAV engineering and flight services to understand both the limitations of current technology and what is required to overcome said limitations going forward.

As parallel technologies evolve to expand the list of solutions that can be used in conjunction with drones, Avetics has explored the viability of mounting said solutions onto the aircraft.

With the ability to integrate new technologies in-house within the Avetics facility, Avetics can solicit feedback from clients on the potential utility of new technologies either develop in-house or ready to be integrated into current or future versions of the Aquila aircraft.

Results Over Novelty

Cheaper, faster, safer: This is what is commonly heard when new technologies are being rolled out for use within tank terminals. What is often overlooked is ‘as good as current solutions’, for there is no value in a solution with no problem to solve. So long as something already meets those requirements, then it is a solution that can be rolled out immediately.

Focusing only on the idealised end state with a vision of drones and other automation solutions doing everything in the yard will only inhibit the uptake of currently viable technological solutions. In a competitive marketplace with expanding demand for storage solutions and a pressing need to ensure that asset maintenance procedures are carried out in a cost-effective manner, it is in the benefit of asset owners to start reaping the benefits of current technologies.

There is no sense in delaying technological adoption while waiting for the perfect future, when the present technologies already offer great solutions.