TTC Works With Advancing Pipeline Condition Assessment Using DRONES

As part of a graduate-level class at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, La., on entrepreneurship in construction, the use of drone technology for industrial inspection was explored.

This all came about through civil engineering graduate student Brice Gillikin, who works with his Bastrop, La, family business that specializes in industrial inspections. During the past few years, the company has adopted the use of drones, due to time and cost savings and increased safety. A recent purchase was a drone specifically designed for confined space applications, including pipelines. For a course project, Gillikin is developing a business plan for the application of drone pipeline condition assessment (PCA) and forming a partnership with the Trenchless Technology Center at Louisiana Tech.

Live demonstration

The TTC has a cooperative working relationship with the Ruston, La., Department of  Public Works (DPW). This includes a partnership to establish a Living Lab, which will permit initial and long-term evaluation and validation of most technical solutions involved with underground infrastructure challenges. When DPW was approached about utilizing drone PCA technology, Darrell Caraway, director, was eager to cooperate with a pilot project.

The drone PCA demonstration project took place on April 27. The objective was to evaluate the fly-ability and imaging data acquisition capability of the Elios drone equipped with CCTV and thermo imaging cameras in 18-, 24- and 72-inch diameter pipelines. Representatives from several companies attended, including CUES Inc., HDR, Atkins, CDM Smith, HGA, KSA Engineering, FTN Associates and Deforest Engineering Consultants.

The 72-inch pipeline is an active storm drain line owned by the city of Ruston, with an average depth of flow of about one foot. The 18- and 24-inch pipelines were dry, new lines located above ground, enabling the demo attendees to get excellent exposure to the precision of the controls and the imaging capability.

The Elios drone is a collision-tolerant drone designed for the inspection and exploration of inaccessible places. Its protective frame is decoupled on three axes from the inner frame, with the drone utilizing a gimbal mechanism. This ingenious decoupling mechanism is what allows Elios to remain stable in the event of a collision. The protective frame is made up of carbon fiber covered with a soft coating, so it can sustain collisions.

The drone can reach a speed up to 787 feet per minute. With a spherical protective frame at a diameter just below 15.7 inches, it is slightly smaller than the smallest standard manhole access. Elios embeds a full HD camera, a thermal camera and onboard LED lighting system with remotely adjustable intensity. Mounted on a rotatable head, the cameras can capture images looking above and below the drone.

The thermal camera can detect cracks that are virtually invisible, helping to anticipate potential major degradations. The intensity of the five arrays of high-efficiency LEDs provide even lighting in front, top and bottom of the robot. The lighting can be adjusted remotely using the ground control station. When changing the pitch angle of the camera head, the light beam is adapted, always providing the correct lighting.

TTC, PCA historical research

The TTC has been a leader in advancing all areas of trenchless technology for almost 30 years, including PCA technology. In 1997 and 1998, the TTC was selected by ASCE to evaluate sewer scanner and evaluation technology (SSET) developed by TOA Grout and CORE Corp., based in Japan. SSET was the first application of side-scanning technology, which permits generation of an unfolded (flat) image of the inside of a pipeline.

Now, most manufacturers of CCTV equipment have developed similar capabilities. SSET incorporates gyroscopic and inclinometer technology to track position utilizing XYZ coordinates. Through a $3.2-million grant from NIST, TTC developed FutureScan technology, currently commercialized by CUES through an exclusive license with Louisiana Tech.

During the fall quarter of 2017, an unconventional graduate-level course on pipeline condition assessment and integrity management (PCA&IM) at the TTC brought international leaders in PCA&IM into the classroom through Skype.

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