Until recently, drones were a conversation of the future. Today, the use cases for drones, referred to as robotic aerial security or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have an ever-expanding application in physical security, critical infrastructure, and project design and management. Talk is, drones will soon become an essential element of a total perimeter physical security detection system.
Engineers and contractors can use drones to research, map and plan projects efficiently, gain visibility into tough-to-reach places, collect easily searchable data points and imagery of structures during inspections and monitor progress overhead at construction sites. Often, using a UAS means contractors are able to conduct these tasks quickly, safely and at a lower cost than using more traditional methods, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), Arlington, Va.
Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI, said thousands of businesses are embracing UAS technology and integrating it into operations.
“UAS capture images and measurements in difficult-to-reach or dangerous places, making them a valuable tool for professionals concerned with safety and efficiency,” he said. “Over 110,000 commercial small UAS are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA], and they expect more than 450,000 to be flying for commercial purposes by 2022. Under a regulatory environment that allows for expanded operations, such as flights over people or beyond line of sight, there is no doubt these numbers could go even higher and more businesses could tap into the tremendous potential of this technology.”
Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager of the drone group at Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., said drones are versatile tools with a wide range of possible applications.
“At Intel, we are leveraging drones for inspection, surveys and mapping using high-resolution imaging and thermal cameras,” he said. “The flight is automated, and the drone is taking images, stitching them together and putting them in the cloud.”
Nanduri said the technology creates a digital “twin” of the asset, such as a transmission plant or other critical infrastructure with Intel software reconstructing accurate, 3-D models.
“Intel’s software analyzes the image and allows the drone to assimilate during flyover if something in the image has changed or is different,” he said. “The technology gets smarter all the time with machine learning and analytics. This doesn’t mean contractors and their needs go away. Instead, contractors become much more skilled and valuable when leveraging drones.”
Integration with traditional physical security components and processes in a seamless solution is further propelling the popularity of drones. Drones incorporate infrared and thermal imaging, video surveillance, sensor detection and analytics, integrating with many widely used and popular video management platforms. They can be used in tandem with perimeter fence and other sensors on-site to maximize existing assets and extend the perimeter.
Nightingale Security, Mountain View, Calif., leverages its Robotic Aerial Security devices to secure perimeters, protect remote assets, evaluate project sites/cover rough terrain, assess first responder situations, deploy and schedule autonomous patrols, conduct search and rescue and administer crowd control.
“There are common problems across security customers,” said Jack Wu, co-founder and CEO, Nightingale Security. “Physical security with human guarding tasks are repetitive and tedious. In large facilities, it’s difficult to respond quickly. Drones promote rapid response when integrated with perimeter sensors to automatically deploy to a specific location.”
Drones also deal with false alarms, allowing responders to assess the situation first and automate response quickly in a real event.
“Drones can fly in a straight line and get faster to the area to offer situational awareness with a live video stream,” Wu said. “If it’s an actual incident, situational awareness can provide information on how many people are involved so responders know how to react. In addition, there’s the matter of economics. Putting a camera everywhere is not always economically feasible. With drones, you can cover a large area cost effectively.
“Integration with multiple sensors improves the ability to detect. It’s all about early detection, maximizing response time and providing real-time situational awareness. It’s also about taking tasks not suited for humans or too unsafe or too expensive and automating those. We don’t see drones as replacing guards. In fact, the quality of the guard force will increase because they will be managing a system. Sensors and drones will make the important decision on how to respond to threats, and the humans will take the action to mitigate threat. Drones will be become standard in physical security, just as IP cameras did,” he said.
Nathan Ruff, CEO of UASidekick LLC, Broomfield, Colo., and executive director of the Coalition of UAS Professionals, said drone technology is a force multiplier, as opposed to a panacea that replaces traditional security solutions such as guards and sensors.
“The use of unmanned robotics and UAS technology is the next step in the industry’s evolution towards faster, better and safer systems and results,” he said. “UAS are reshaping the world of security as we know it. Through a combination of artificial intelligence, machine vision and edge processing, drones now make autonomous decisions to ensure mission completion without humans in the loop. Nowhere are the implications of these cutting-edge technologies more pertinent than for the security industry. As a recent drone assasination attempt in Venezuela makes evident, traditional ‘top-of-fence’ security thinking defined in two dimensions is a thing of the past—we’ve catapulted into a 4-D realm, and there’s no going back. Whether to employ these tools proactively as a force-multiplying asset or counter them defensively, all security professionals—including electrical contractors—need to better understand current capabilities and the future threat vectors unfolding from this burgeoning and truly disruptive technology.”
Drones can be leveraged to assist with both the design and planning of physical security projects as well as implementation.
“It’s really all about data acquisition,” Ruff said. “UAS/drones are a handy and cost-effective aerial delivery vehicle for sensors. Cameras, thermal imaging, toxic gas sniffing, if a sensor exists with a low SWaP [size, weight and power] profile, a drone can carry it where it needs to go.”
Due to GPS stabilization, it generally takes longer to unpack a drone from its packaging than it does to learn how to fly it with a modicum of skill and all for less than $1,000. However, the FAA requires a Part 107 pilots license to use drones commercially, Ruff said.
Gretchen West, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, Washington, D.C., and senior adviser to Hogan Lovells US LLP, Menlo Park, Calif., said using drones to monitor infrastructure, map sites and builds and provide security surveillance are some of the most important uses for the technology.
“There are some examples of how drones can provide true cost savings or less manpower,” West said. “In the energy industry, shutting down a flare stack for inspection by a human can cost in excess of $1 million per day, but using a drone, the flare stack can be inspected quickly without having to temporarily suspend operations. To survey pipelines or power lines, traditionally manned helicopters are used, which costs hundreds of dollars per hour. Using a drone for inspection can cost a mere fraction of that.”