From Reuters, via Twitter:
General Electric Co has begun testing autonomous drones and robotic “crawlers” to inspect refineries, factories, railroads and other industrial equipment with an eye on capturing a bigger slice of the $40 billion (31.6 billion pounds) companies around the globe spend annually on inspections.
In trials with customers, aerial drones and robots are able to move around and inside remote or dangerous facilities while photographing corrosion or taking temperature, vibration or gas readings that can be analysed by computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, Alex Tepper, head of business development at Avitas Systems, a startup GE formed for this business, told Reuters.
Hmmmm. I think somebody might be overselling something to impress a journalist here. I have heard of drones being used to scope pipeline routes and to look for leaks, which makes perfect sense. Normally this is done by helicopter, so a drone is simply a cheaper and easier way of doing the same thing. And the insides of pipelines are inspected by a sort of robot called an “intelligent pig”, which detects corrosion among other things. This is an evolving technology, but it has been around a long time. I have also seen remote control helicopters used to inspect flares.
But carrying out inspections of refineries and factories? No such facility is that remote, they are all manned to some degree. Why not just send an inspector? And a dangerous facility? Okay, I get that drones and crawlers could be useful in assessing the damage done to a plant that has just blown itself to smithereens or leaked poisonous gas everywhere, but is this their target customer? One that can’t operate its facilities safely?
This looks to me like a solution in search of a problem. The throwaway line about artificial intelligence points in that direction. Photos from a drone might give an inspection team some useful idea on the condition of something that is hard to reach, as will temperature readings, but they’ll not be analysed using artificial intelligence or even an algorithm. If and when drones are used on refineries and in factories, they’ll not be autonomous.