The benefits of drones in manufacturing


Although the global drone market is expected to be worth US$15 billion by 2022, the manufacturing industry would account for less than 2% of drone deployments. This is surprising, given that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) find a wide variety of industrial applications, from surveillance to infrastructure inspection. Here, Neil Bellinger, EMEA Manager at EU Automation, discusses the benefits of using drones in manufacturing.

Drones are far from just fancy flying cameras. Their sophisticated technology allows them to obtain and record information where humans cannot, such as in hazardous environments and hard-to-reach areas.

Although challenges have slowed the introduction of drones to manufacturers, such as a lack of consistent and clear regulation, this regulatory void was filled in 2021, when new EU directives on the operation of drones from recreational and commercial organizations have been established to regulate the manufacture and operation of drones by adopting a risk-based approach. Risk is categorized into low, medium, and high, each with regulations and restrictions.

The ban on operations beyond visual line of sight has also been lifted for drones weighing more than five kilograms. This allows larger drones, ideal for commercial and industrial applications, to be used more consistently in manufacturing, although use beyond line of sight still requires approval.

Flying drones into the future

Typically, discussions of drones focus on transportation uses, such as last-mile delivery. However, there are other beneficial applications, such as providing enhanced asset monitoring.

Drones can improve the performance of asset monitoring by using infrared and thermal technology to obtain accurate information about the temperature of machines and production lines. For example, if temperatures were too high, the drones alerted operators in time to fix the problem before an equipment failure caused unwanted downtime.

Implementing drones in manufacturing can also help save time on inventory checks. Drones can help perform precise inventory checks, which would typically be a time-consuming manual task that workers perform by scanning radio frequency identification chips and barcodes. Using drones would allow manufacturers to free up valuable time to focus resources and attention on production.

Drones can also help manufacturers increase compliance by recording temperature checks, production line observations, and defects from drone footage.

Drones can also improve health and safety compliance. Plant maintenance inspections often require production to be shut down for safety reasons. However, if a drone were to be used to inspect machinery, production could continue without compromising staff safety.

Transporting parts between different areas of a manufacturing plant or warehouse can also be unnecessarily time consuming. The drones can carry parts weighing up to five kilograms and fly to warehouses to collect and deliver them. Using drones to transport parts, even a short distance, such as from one production line to another, or for picking and packaging purposes, saves manufacturers valuable time.

Drones can be programmed to hover over buildings and railroad crossings, removing obstacles that would slow down delivery drivers. These obstacles are recorded in real time and routes can be pre-programmed and modified accordingly, allowing for an efficient delivery system.

Some issues need to be addressed before we see widespread adoption of drones in manufacturing, such as battery life and payload capabilities. However, despite the technology needing some improvement, drones are still a useful tool for asset and compliance monitoring, and one that more manufacturers could consider.

To keep up to date with the latest smart manufacturing technologies, visit the free EU Automation Knowledge Hub.

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