Aerial Thermography: An In-Depth Look at Two Fascinating Applications Aimed at Keeping People Safe and Growing More Food from Existing Resources

BY Alan Perlman
15 March 2017

We’ve written before about ways to make money using aerial thermography, and of course we covered our own Intro to Aerial Thermography course and why we created it to offer skills that will give commercial drone pilots an edge a little while back.

Today we want to go further, and look closely at how some of these applications actually play out in real life.

In these two in-depth case studies from Workswell, creator of the thermography sensor Workswell WIRIS, we get a close look at how aerial thermography is being used for inspections with the end goal of preventing accidents while improving efficiency at a major industrial facility, and also how aerial thermography is helping to facilitate the cultivation of different plants in agriculture.

The second application is mind blowing—it involves using the “thermal behavior” of plants to identify their specific classification, which makes cultivation for specific outcomes much, much easier.

Let’s dive in.

[We just re-opened our Intro to Aerial Thermography course—learn more here.]

1.Inspections: Using Aerial Thermography to Measure Temperature Extremes for Burners at a Gas Processing Plant



Last year CONDOR Solutions carried out an inspection of the burners in a facility called OPF operated by a company called Sakhalin Energy.

The OPF facility receives and processes gas for transport via pipeline to a crude oil terminal. It covers an area of more than 62,000 square meters, or almost 39 square miles, the facility is massive, and contains pumps that allow processing of up to 195,000 barrels of oil a day.

The facility is on Sachalin Island, located in a Russian territory north of Japan, in the Pacific Ocean.

The burners are crucial to the work of the facility, and undergo daily stress by being constantly subjected to extremes of heat and cold. The goal of the inspection was to create specific measurements for the extremes of temperature to which the burners are exposed, so that the data could be used to create a precise maintenance and inspection schedule that would allow for problems to be detected far before any potential breaking points for the materials used to build the burners.

The Inspection


In addition to the standard camera SONY Alpha 7R attached to their UAVs, CONDOR Solutions used a thermal imaging camera, the Workswell WIRIS, to inspect the burners for extreme temperatures.

The weather during inspection was cloudy, with the wind at 14 m/sec and a temperature of -10° Celsius, or 14° Fahrenheit.

Due to the extremes in temperature, thermal measurements were divided into two parts:

  • The burners’ mast from the bottom part up to the top service runway.
  • The upper part of the burner’s shank.

The thermal imaging camera allowed for a measurement of temperatures up to 1,500° Celsius, or 2,732° Fahrenheit (woah, that’s hot!), using a high temperature filter.


The temperature profile shown above was created as one of the final deliverables for the inspection, using data gathered with the thermography sensor.

The graph and thermogram above clearly show where the pipeline isolation finishes. At this point, the temperature sharply increases up, and consequently the temperature gradually decreases together with the height, up to the upper part (i.e., the shank) of the burner, then the temperature rapidly increases up again, to about 2,000°Celsius, or 3,632° Fahrenheit.


Using the data gathered by the CONDOR team, the facility managers were able to create an optimal schedule for maintenance and inspections to reduce breakage, as well as enhancing production potential for the facility.

Pretty neat that the data gathered, which couldn’t be gathered any other way, was used not only to make things more efficient, but also to help avoid accidents and ultimately keep the people working at this facility safer than they’d otherwise be.

2. Agriculture: Using Aerial Thermography for the Cultivation and Phenotyping of Cereals



This application is more complicated than the inspection application covered above, and, well, it’s also just darn clever.

The goal here was to use cultivation to emphasize certain traits in a staple plant, such as wheat, and de-emphasize others, in order to get a more ideal version of that plant for various conditions (you could imagine wanting several varieties—those that are hardy in the cold, or do well during periods of drought, and so on, depending on the area in which you want to grow your crop).

The process of cultivating different seeds in order to create new cereal varieties is incredibly time consuming, because it requires manually going through fields of crops and looking for different types of characteristics (not to mention knowing what characteristics to look for in the first place) in order to list, and then track, which kind of plant is growing where on a specific plot of land.

In this case, in order to cultivate different seeds, the genetic resources of minor cereals were tested in three-year seedbeds, using known findings related to the collections of genetic resources. It was crucial to track the different types of cereals being grown, and that is where aerial thermography comes in.

The Application


The genetic resources (i.e., the plants!) being evaluated in this instance included winter and spring wheat, winter barley, both forms of triticales (a wheat hybrid), vain types of Hordeae (barley), and a number of other minor crops.

And this is where things get really fascinating, because it turns out that thermography, enabled by UAvs, has extended the range of classifiers for plants (that is, aerial thermography has allowed for the creation of new ways to classify and categorize plants—which is pretty incredible), and now allows us to classify plants in terms of their thermal behavior in relation to their transpiration response.

“Transpiration response” in plants is roughly equivalent to sweating—plants have openings on their leaves that allow water to escape—so, in short, plants were identified from the air based on how heat affected them, and how much, or if, they transpired. Which is way faster than walking around a field with a clipboard. 🙂

The Details

In the spring of last year 224 genotypes of wheat and 10 genotypes of triticale were sown.

For scanning the temperature condition of experimental varieties, a thermal imaging camera (Workswell WIRIS) was used, supported by a UAV based on Gryphon Dynamics’ frames system. The flight was pre-programmed using UGCS Ground Station, and the data was processed using Pix4D and analyzed by both the Workswell CorePlayer and the Workswell Thermoformat software.



The preliminary analysis of the data indicated that the approach was useful for the process of cultivation and phenotyping (i.e., identifying different genetic types), where the varieties have specific symptoms and significant differences in the areas of both visible and infrared radiation.

In short, thermography was able to help us view plants in a whole new way, and this approach wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t aerial—that is, if the thermal sensor wasn’t attached to a UAV.

The ways in which aerial thermography can be useful to agriculture are already many, and there are certain to be more applications and more types of use cases for existing applications as we move forward in our use of drones. And we can only imagine what future uses might be discovered for this new “using thermal behavior to identify plants” application—what kinds of wheat and other plants will be cultivated more efficiently and with greater yields? How many thousands of hours of labor will we save, and how much new food will be produced? We’re excited to find out.


Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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