NTR Lab, a company that, among other things, is a software and hardware developer for UAVs, has recently come out with a drone custom made to perform oil tank inspections. It all started when a long-time Dutch client came up with a new startup idea and came to NTR to work on developing the idea. The problem: oil tanks must be inspected for tech problems every 10 years, and the process is very time-consuming, costly, and, most importantly, very dangerous for the human inspector.
It turned out to be a very challenging project, due to the nature of flight inside a steel tank. Some of the challenges faced include:
- The drone doesn’t know where it is because there are no GPS signals in places like steel tanks, tubes, or certain kinds of rooms and that makes standard drone navigation impossible.
- Frequently UAVs cannot be controlled over ordinary radio channels, because of surface reflection, which makes the need for “autonomous and unmanned” even more important. However, when dealing with various surfaces one size does not fit all, because each surface requires different custom features. And that’s why indoor drones stay indoors.
- Today’s cameras create amazing images, but they all have one thing in common: they require light to create images. The lack of sufficient light in tanks, tubes, etc., makes producing good images extremely challenging.
- UAVs are reliant on magnetometers when operating in places where GPS doesn’t work. However, magnetometers don’t always operate correctly; for example, electric motors generate strong magnetic fields and large chunks of ferrous metals can also affect the field.
- While drones are highly maneuverable they require space in which to do it. While they have no problem outside, it is much more difficult to fly in a tight, enclosed space, such as a tank or tube.
- Flying a UAV in the open air, or an empty room with plain surfaces, is very different from flying an environment full of edges and obstacles. Indoor navigation demands precise positioning to handle working goals, such as inspections, etc.
Accomplishing all this turned out to be far more difficult than anyone on the NTR team expected. However, they persevered, and the result is that they have succeeded in building a drone that could address all of the challenges above, and is close to satisfying DARPA FLA standards, which is definitely something to be proud of.
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