Flying Drones in Tight, Dangerous Places: Flyability’s Elios Inspects a Nuclear Power Plant, a Jet Engine Test Facility, and More

BY Zacc Dukowitz
1 January 2018

Many drones have now been designed for obstacle avoidance, but Flyability has taken a different approach to the problem with their Elios drone, which is designed to crash and keep going.

The drone sits inside a protective, flexible cage that can absorb the impact of a collision without bringing the drone to the ground. Check it out:

elios-drone

A drone like this has a lot of potential to do good and keep people from harm’s way, and to help us get a closer look at places that may have been impossible to reach in the past.

Let’s take a look at how the Elios is actually being used in the field.

Nuclear Power Plant Inspection

Inspection Goals

1) An annual survey of underground tank rooms at the nuclear power plant.

2) An investigation of a suspected leak inside of the reactor building.

Why Use the Elios for This?

Because of its unique design, the Elios can reach those tight areas needed for inspection and help keep staff at the nuclear plan from exposure to harmful radiation.

elios-nuclear-inspection
A shot taken by the Elios during an inspection

Overview

The inspection of a nuclear power plant is a difficult and dangerous process.

The primary concern for any inspection at a nuclear plant is safety, and there are detailed processes in place to avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation.

For the routine annual inspection (Goal 1 above) of three underground tank rooms, inspectors must access each of the three rooms by a ladder, passing from low dose areas (safe areas) at the top of the ladder to higher dose areas (protected by locked doors and shields.) The process requires inspection personnel to don a full suit of disposable anti-contamination clothing before entering each room, take pictures of various points inside the space to evaluate the condition of the assets, and remove the anti-contamination clothing again after leaving each room.

A radiation monitor is required to accompany the inspector, which means that two people are exposed to radiation during each inspection. After the inspection of the three tank rooms is performed, six sets of anti-contamination clothing (two for each of the three rooms) must be stored as waste and shipped for disposal.

“We used to send in a person with a flashlight.”

– Nuclear power plant manager

During this process, the inspector and the accompanying radiation monitor could each receive up to 250 millirem (2’500 µSv) of radiation in the 1-2 minutes required to enter the space and climb the ladders to reach critical areas. This amount of radiation is about 10% of the annual limit for radiation exposure.

Using a drone instead of a person means that much less exposure for the people involved.

Benefits

  • Inspection of tank rooms reduced from 1.5 hours down to less than 15 minutes.
  • Exposure to radiation representing up to 10% of the annual dose avoided.
  • About $456,000 of loss of income avoided in a single operation.

Wait, what—half a million dollars in savings?

Speeding things up and keeping people from harm’s way would make the use of a drone a no brainer for this kind of inspection in and of themselves, but to save half a million dollars in the process is pretty incredible. Let’s break that savings down.

Where Does the $456K Savings Come from?

When a person conducts inspections of a nuclear plant, those areas being inspected have to be shut down before the inspection can be performed. It takes about six hours to power down and six more to power back up, which means that not only are there costs associated with the inspection itself, the plant is not generating energy during the 12 hour window in which the inspection takes place.

The average power production of a nuclear reactor is about 24GWh per day. At the average wholesale price of electricity per KWh ($.12) and the average production price per KWh ($.025) a nuclear reactor generates about $2.3 M net per day. Using that estimate, the savings generated by retaining full output for approximately 12 hours is around $456,000.

Not only did using a drone allow the plant to avoid shutting down and powering back up, but it also provided more information than could have been obtained using a person. While a person can only spend 1-2 minutes in areas where the danger of radiation is high, the Elios was able to fly for 10 minutes in the same areas, providing much more data than could have been captured otherwise.

Other Elios Inspection Scenarios

There are dozens of scenarios where having a drone that can crash and keep going is a hugely valuable thing.

Here are just a few more.

Pressure Vessel Inspections

A prevalent tool in energy production and storage are pressure vessels, which hold gases and liquids at high pressures. These vessels have to be inspected regularly, since if one of them ruptures the results can be fatal to those working nearby. Using personnel for these inspections is time consuming, and dangerous. Enter the Elios.

elios-pressure-inspection

Jet Engine Test Facilities

The jet engine test beds used in the aeronautical industry for Quality Control and R&D require strict maintenance. Traditional methods of inspection involve lengthy and inefficient operations, which result in high costs and downtime. Using a drone for these inspections is cheaper, safer, and much, much quicker.

elios-jet-engine
How cool is this picture?

Want to learn more about how the Elios is being used to keep people from harm’s way? Check out the case studies on their website.

Zacc Dukowitz

Contributing Writer

Zacc Dukowitz is a contributing writer, and the former Director of Marketing for UAV Coach. A writer with professional experience in education technology and digital marketing, Zacc is passionate about reporting on the drone industry at a time when UAVs can help us live better lives. Zacc also holds the rank of nidan in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is a widely published fiction writer. Zacc has an MFA from the University of Florida and a BA from St. John's College. Follow @zaccdukowitz or check out zaccdukowitz.com to read his work.

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