Drones deliver data, digital twins and digitalization for industrial maintenance

Drones are essentially “eyes in the sky” that can access hard-to-reach areas in industrial sites. Site managers are taking such capabilities seriously as shortages of workers for manual inspections continue and the need to build out renewable energy installations grows. This is why it made sense for Emerald client Nabtesco Technology Ventures (NTV) to invest in Tokyo-based Sensyn Robotics, which develops drone- and robot-based monitoring and inspection systems for industrial sites, with a particular focus on clean energy.

In this interview, Emerald Investment Manager Anandhi Gokhale discusses the argument for drone-based monitoring of industrial sites, what site managers can do with the data and why Sensyn was a good match for NTV.

Anandhi Gokhale, Investment Manager, Energy

What is the rationale for drone-based monitoring of industrial sites?

 Site managers face pressure to monitor the upkeep of their assets, but the options for doing so are quite limited. Typically, they could turn to one of the following:

  • Manual inspections: because these can be very time-consuming, they are usually limited to once per year or every other year.
  • Lab inspections of a small sample of equipment (for instance, lab-based thermographic inspection of a selection of solar panels from a plant to identify defects): these also can be costly and time-consuming, with samples needing to be shipped between the site and certified labs, certificates issued, etc. They may also miss issues that are present elsewhere in the site, but not in the sample.
  • Handheld camera inspections, including thermal imaging to detect “hotspots”, or places where temperatures are abnormally high (a common problem in industrial and energy sites): these are easy when there are only a few pieces of equipment to check but become more difficult with greater scale.

Only drones offer that combination of agility, precision and speed that can overcome all these challenges.

How exactly can site managers use the data that these drones collect?

The base case is to use them to fix the odd crack or flaw. You can easily spot the area that needs fixing with a drone-based camera and send a crew to repair it. But this is only a fraction of what’s possible. As drones can essentially capture 360-degree depictions of different assets, operators can create “digital twins” from this data: counterparts of the physical equipment that exist in the virtual realm. These can provide all types of information, both current and historical, about the equipment. Managers can even perform simulations on them to see how they react under theoretical conditions.

Digging deeper yet, these data—when packaged onto digital twin platforms—can help managers create automated workflows for site operations and maintenance schedules. This can help the operators upgrade from pen-and-paper checklists to smartphones and tablets for their most important work.

Why is this deal good for NTV specifically?

Nabtesco, NTV’s parent company, specializes in motion control technology—meaning the company has a solid understanding of the world of moving objects, including drones. NTV’s investment aims include plugging into digitization, software-as-a-service and the energy transition. Emerald has already helped it invest into several climate-positive sectors, including wind and batteries. Sensyn sits at the intersection of many of these cross currents.