Stephen Verheul, director of Visual Air, on the value of drones to business and the right use of the wealth of information they provide


Q: How long has Visual Air been operating?
A: We’ve been in business since 1997. A lot of people are surprised to hear that, because they think drones are a new technology. In technical terms, a drone is actually a RPAS, or remotely piloted aircraft system. What has happened in recent years is that businesses have started to see the commercial value of these aircraft – and that is driving huge growth in the industry. Between 2012 and 2014, roughly $6.3 million was invested in professional drone companies. In 2015, that figure jumped by 700% to reach $44.3 million. SA is the ideal country to grow this business, due to the large variety of industries. We also have good weather, with no harsh, snowy winters, and relatively few bad weather days that can affect our services.

Q: What kind information do you collect for clients?
A: Visual Air works with many clients in a range of industries, from cinematography/video to inspections, surveying, construction, agriculture, security, and so on. We’re currently finding that one of the biggest uses of drones is in surveying and volume calculations. Processed data from the aerial images is more accurate compared to ground data for volume calculations, due to the sheer amount and quality of our data collected in a safer manner than a surveyor climbing stock piles.

Our drones collect RGB or thermal photographs for 3D imaging or video. How it works is, the drone can automatically fly in a grid, with 80% forward lap and side lap of photographs. When these are stitched together, a full point cloud is generated, from which the volumes can be calculated. Those volumes are very accurate. Various camera payloads are used for very high resolution pictures, including cameras that offer 60X digital zoom. In layman’s terms, this means facial recognition and number plate recognition at 300m away, and serial number recognition at 30m.

With a radiometric thermal camera, if I were to take a photograph of you, I could measure the temperature of your eye, and its surrounding area, with very high levels of accuracy. We also shoot 4K video, which generates 25 frames per second. Each of those frames is a 12 MB photograph, so you can do frame grabs out of that video. Say you fly a drone around a building: your engineer can stop it, do a 12 MB frame grab and place that photograph in a report. This is a cheaper option to the 3D imaging, and it’s also a quick reporting system.

Q: What benefits does this have for businesses on the ground?
A: Think about agriculture. With our aerial data technology we can inspect maize plants, to the extent where you can see the individual mealies. When you tell the drone map to do a plant count, the software will tell you instantly how many thousand plants are in that field. Also, before harvesting, the cameras can identify the colour – and, by extension, the health – of each plant. The farmer will then know if there’s a particular area where the plants are not healthy, before they infect their neighbouring plants.

Q: What other applications does this technology have?
A: Aside from surveying and asset management, there is also huge value from a maintenance perspective. Take the example of a wind turbine. Each turbine has blades, which are prone to bird strikes and cracks. If you detect a crack early, it can be mended. If you leave it too long, you might have to replace the entire blade. So the value that a drone adds here is in its annual inspections. Another example is solar farms, where you use a drone to map the entire farm with thermal imagery. That data can be analysed, and you can then identify exactly which panels are faulty or might need maintenance. If one of the blocks on a solar panel is faulty, it can burn itself and its surrounding blocks, and eventually the entire panel. If that panel goes up in flames, it will take the next panel with it, and it could eventually destroy the entire solar farm.

Q: Is that maintenance value also linked to insurance concerns?
A: Yes, and a lot of the growth in this industry is being driven by insurance companies. From an insurance point of view, inspections need to be done regularly – and if you’re not using a drone, the only other way to do these inspections is by physically walking around with a thermal camera, measuring each of those panels. It would take a single person a few months to do that. We do it quicker, and more cost effectively. Using drone technology, we have photographed a 350 000-panel, 35 ha solar farm in 10 days.

Q: What benefits do drones have, compared to other technologies?
A: Drones give you the choice of getting that same information – whether it’s surveying information or aerial film footage – at a more cost-effective price. It also gives you information that wasn’t available before. In the old days, you would survey coal piles using a GPS and then calculate the volumes using the gradient. You would ignore the irregular shapes of the stock pile, and base your calculations on an average. When we use drone technology to measure stock piles, a million GPS points are generated from the photographs, and the software will tell you exactly what the volume is, with absolute accuracy.

This technology has taken out the guesswork. A stockpile of coal or iron ore is worth a lot of money. Surely you would want an accurate volume count? The only way to do that is by aerial survey – and by drones particularly, because they can get low enough to make accurate readings.

Q: Won’t drones take work away from pilots of full-size aircraft?
A: No, but what drones have done is give another perspective. With a drone you get a point of view that a manned aircraft cannot give you. That’s the difference. In fact, a few drone pilots are licensed to fly in controlled airspace, along with full-sized aircraft. So there are cases – and we’ve had many – where the drone pilots and the full-sized aircraft pilots work together on a job.

Q: Can anybody fly a drone, or are there regulations governing its use?
A: There are very strict regulations, and the public are usually not fully aware of the implications. Anybody can go to the shop and buy a drone, but the question is: do you know the legalities around flying it? Do you know that you’re not allowed to fly it over a property without the landowner’s permission? Do you know that you’re not allowed to fly within 50m of any person or road, or within 10 km of an airport or helipad? Most people don’t. There is a huge worldwide concern about this. There are two lines of regulation, which you’ll find on SA’s Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] website: ‘Do not, through act or omission, endanger the safety of another aircraft or person therein or any person or property through negligent flying/operation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or toy aircraft.’ Those two lines say it all. Go buy your drone. Enjoy flying it. But be careful.

Q: Is there not a concern about over-regulating the industry?
A: SA is actually very lucky to have drone regulations. A lot of countries do not, and they have a no-fly situation until the International Civil Aviation Organisation has introduced world-standard RPAS regulations. The companies that are using legal operators in SA tend to be big, international firms that believe in regulation, because they know they will not be covered by insurance if they use an illegal operator. This is important. You have to understand, any data that is collected illegally cannot be used commercially. So, if you take photographs illegally using a drone, they are not admissible as evidence in any court case.

Any illegally gathered data cannot be included in your balance sheet. If you collect information for volume calcu-lations, and you do so illegally, that information is not valid. Businesses have to understand this, and must ensure that any information gathered using drone technology is done legally, and within the law according to the CAA’s regulations.

Q: How would you summarise a drone’s offering to industry?
A: One of my favourite sayings is, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. Think of it from an inspection point of view. Try to explain that image of the faulty wind turbine blade or solar panel, in words. The images and information we collect will give you far more than a thousand words of explanation. But the drone is purely a data collector. What you do with that data is ultimately up to you. The drone is not an engineer. You need to take the data the drone collects and put it in the engineer’s hands so that they can make sense of it. But know that, with the equipment we use, they will be working with the most accurate data available.

By Mark van Dijk
Image: Wilnicque Rall