How Will Drones Affect the Rope Access Industry?

The rapid emergence of drone technology concerning battery life, lighter weight components and more robust control software mean this platform can now seriously benefit the Industrial Rope Access industry.

2016-12-04:- UAVs / Drones – so what’s all that about then?
The rapid emergence of drone technology concerning battery life, lighter weight components and more robust control software mean this platform can now seriously benefit the Rope Access industry. Lighter airframes mean greater payloads and longer operational air-time.

Drones now present a serious option for Rope Access companies to offer accelerated initial surveys for their existing client base.
Companies with a drone capability can visit a site (onshore or offshore) and quickly deploy a drone to carry out a site survey with a skeleton crew in the shortest possible time – minimal equipment set up is a major advantage. The data can then be presented to the engineers responsible for the structure, who can then use it to create work packs for areas of concern either for more detailed inspection, or for repair / remedial works to the structure.
Rope Access teams can then be sent to access the site to carry out the work.

The client benefits in two ways:
1)    Fewer personnel on the initial survey
2)    Faster deployment and collation of initial survey data
The above is a particular advantage in the offshore environment, where time and bed space are at a premium.

Won’t this be bad for the Rope Access industry?
A similar situation happened when Rope Access was amalgamating, alarm bells started ringing in the scaffolding industry - scaffolders thought it would completely wipe them out. History shows this not to be the case, initially there were a few jobs that did affect the scaffolding companies but it was soon realised that a Rope Access team with faster, cheaper and sometimes safer deployment was a big winner with the client companies. The Rope Access companies eventually generated more scaffolding requests.

How? Because of the advantages of rope access, it was employed in more and more situations, which then resulted in more work to be done by scaffolding companies. In addition, there will always be tasks that can’t be carried out to an acceptable level using Rope Access, there will always be a need for scaffolding – the same thing will happen with drone technologies, cheaper, faster and sometimes safer deployment will lead to it being utilised more often, especially for initial site surveys, this will then generate more job requests for a ‘hands on’ deployment – resulting, overall, in an expansion of the Rope Access market.
What are the advantages for Rope Access companies in having their own Drone Department?
Essentially, it’s cheaper, easier and therefore more efficient for the client. Rather than hiring a bespoke ‘drone only’ company, then having to employ the services of a Rope Access company to carry out the work. Rope Access companies with their own drone capabilities can offer a ‘one-stop-shop’ to their clients, in a similar fashion that some already do with inspection departments, or railway departments etc. This one stop shop approach is already a familiar part of a lot of Rope Access company business models, so the addition of a drone department only enhances their service offering and value.

A typical scenario would be: The Rope Access company deploys a drone team to assess a job (structural inspection on turbine blades, drill derrick, flare, bridge, viaduct etc. etc.). Areas of maintenance or repair are detected during the initial survey. Engineers then deal with the same management team to create a work pack for the job, arrange the budgets and then deploy the Rope Access team to carry the work out. The drone team then move on to next job whilst the repair team are still busy working then repeat the same procedure.

What about certification for the pilots?
Current certification is “Permission for Aerial Work” (PFAW) qualification, the UK Civil Aviation Authority states:

The PFAW is split into four different classes and these are defined by aircraft type and aircraft weight:
1.    Rotary 0-7kg
2.    Rotary 7-20kg
3.    Fixed Wing 0-7kg
4.    Fixed Wing 7-20kg
In order to be granted a PFAW the operator must satisfy the following requirements:
•    Demonstration of Pilot competence (Theoretical Knowledge and Piloting ability)
•    Operations Manual Approval
•    PFAW Application – CAA Form SRG1320
If the operator wants to change or add a different class of aircraft to their PFAW there is no requirement to redo the Theoretical Knowledge as this is the same for all classes, they only have to do a Flight Assessment for the class required.
The requirements for the PFAW are usually achieved by completing a CAA approved course, at an NQE (National Qualified Entity) Such as UAVAir.

Companies who already have a CAA issued PFAW can add their employees as approved pilots.

Although on initial review it appears confusing, the process is relatively straightforward. More advice is available from the link at the end of this article.

What about the costs for the hardware?
Costs have reduced considerably over the last few years, the technology advances have also been impressive. Hardware is hugely variable, from smaller (yet very capable) drones sub £1K to the more expensive commercial side which can top £20+K. A typical SkyJib 8 Octocopter "Hollywood Heavy Lifter" (airframe only) cost comes in at about £2K and is good for a multitude of commercial operations. Prices increase according to the actual payload and purpose.

What is the typical location where they can be used?
Areas of use are still expanding; new avenues are being explored every day.  Typical locations include:
•    Bridges
•    Viaducts
•    Offshore Oil / gas Installations
•    Rail Infrastructure Projects
•    Building Inspection / Maintenance

Can they only be used outside?
Amazingly, no! There have been a few examples of drones being used to survey storage tanks, blister tanks and other confined spaces – the selection of drone hardware in the marketplace makes it possible to find hardware for almost all possible locations.

What services can they provide?
Like the above, the potential uses are continuing to develop, here’s a small selection of what is available:
•    Dimensional surveys
•    Live feeds providing feedback to a control room, this aids logistics and planning for construction projects
•    Thermal Imaging
•    Volumetric surveys
•    Visual surveys

Overall, we see this as a pioneering opportunity for the Rope Access industry to offer its clients a more effective and safer service. As with all height related work, the least amount of exposure to falls is the main aim. Drone usage accentuates the company’s capability whilst simultaneously reducing the need for exposure to falls for the technicians involved.

An additional benefit to the Rope Access industry is the public awareness of drone technology, there’s a large uptake in private drone tech which puts drones in the forefront of people’s minds, combining this with Rope Access will only increase the profile of Industrial Rope Access industry.

As you can see, this is a huge subject and this article is only meant to trigger further discussion. Feel free to leave your comments in our UAV forum section here:
How Will Drones Affect the Rope Access Industry?