Inspecting gas pipelines with helicopters is expensive and time-consuming. As an alternative, the German company offers Exabotix a drone team that automatically carries out inspection flights. After the bets, everyone lands Professional drone in a remote drone hangar, also by Exabotix. These droneports are thanks linear guide, housing bearings and bearings of Igus maintenance free.
Many gas pipelines cannot be seen with the naked eye. Because operators often lay the kilometer-long routes underground. But that does not automatically mean protection for the pipes. There is a constant threat of farmer activities, unannounced construction, vegetation or landslides. In order to avert the risks of such applications, the law obliges the device drivers to visually inspect the guest routes regularly – at least once a day. Such jobs are usually done by helicopters.
The problem: The operations cause enormous costs and often noise pollution for residents. That is why more and more operators are switching to replacing the helicopter with a professional drone. The enterprise Exabotix from Bad Lauterberg near Göttingen has specialized in the little inspectors of the air. Since 2012, Exabotix has been implementing drone solutions for television teams, surveying institutes, civil protection, police and fire brigades, and recently also for gas pipeline operators.
For the inspection of gas pipelines, Exabotix has the autonomous drone HD 6-1000 PRO plus developed. The inspection drone flies and inspects the pipelines. The drone solution includes software that can be used to schedule flights along GPS points. During its autonomous flight, the quadrocopter then takes a close look at its surroundings. For this purpose, there is a color mapping camera on board and a video transmission that sends the encrypted recordings to the control center. The evaluation of the camera recordings of the inspection flight also takes place there automatically. The software sounds an alarm if structures in the landscape deviate from stored patterns. In this case, the operator can take countermeasures to protect the pipeline without a great deal of time delay.
But pipelines are often several hundred kilometers long. The range of an electrically powered drone is limited. The HD 6-1000 PRO plus drone currently has one range of 18 km. Exabotix has therefore set up drone hangars along the route at regular intervals. Several quadrocopters take off and land from these drone ports to inspect their respective sections of the route.
"Our drone hangar enables operators of gas pipelines to have a whole swarm of inspection quadrocopters operate completely autonomously from a distance," says Sam Cegarra, engineer at Exabotix. Since a single drone only flies a few kilometers, it can make better use of suitable weather windows, which the system automatically calls up for each location. "It wouldn't make sense to fly several kilometers at a time, because you can't make sure that the drone doesn't get caught in bad weather in between."
For the drone teamwork, the user only has to give a start command from the control center. The quadrocopters then independently collect data from weather stations in the area, because no model can take off in heavy rain. If the weather is fine, the drone hangars automatically open their roller doors and extend the platform for the drone to launch: The inspection drones begin their tour. One steering by the operator is not necessary for this, not even when landing. The quadrocopters land automatically by orienting the cameras to graphic codes on the platform. Once they have landed successfully, the little helpers can use the contacts on their feet to recharge their batteries for the next assignment – safely protected from wind and weather. insulation and Air conditioning ensure a constant temperature of 20 °C.
Since technician calls are time-consuming and expensive, the drone garages must be as robust and maintenance-free as possible. A potential vulnerability is the 4,5 m long rails on which the take-off and landing platform slides out into the open. Here, corrosion could bring the system to a standstill. Likewise, lubrication would need technicians to top up lubricant on a regular basis. In order to avoid these problems, the engineers went in search of a corrosion-free and maintenance-free one linear guide.
They found what they were looking for at igus GmbH in Cologne. The motion plastics specialist has focused on the development of moving components for industry for decades. For their drone hangars, the Exabotix engineers chose the Series linear guide Drylin W. The linear rails are made of aluminum and the carriages are made of die-cast zinc. The platform is now mounted on this linear technology.
"Drylin W is a cost-effective linear guide system that offers designers great flexibility," says Stefan Niermann, head of the linear and drive technology division at igus. The system is also almost maintenance-free. "The housing bearings of the slide are made of a high-performance plastic called iglidur J, which, thanks to integrated solid lubricants, enables low-friction and maintenance-free dry running - without a single drop of lubricating oil. As a result, technicians never have to go out to relubricate.”
Because the system self-cleaning is, it also requires no cleaning work. The carriage bearings slide on the linear rails instead of rolling. They push the dirt in front of them until it finally falls off the rails. This makes it almost impossible for dust and dirt to interfere with the functioning of the mechanism.
The hardened and anodized aluminum rails are corrosion-free and withstand even extreme temperatures from -20° to +40 °C without the material warping. Moisture is also not a problem. Water and snow simply run off the guide rails and have no chance of stopping. Besides, they have bearings a low moisture absorption of only 0,3% in the slide.
"This value is so low that it is only necessary to take moisture swelling into account in extreme cases," states Niermann. sun can plain bearings also do not harm. They do discolor under the influence of UV rays materialhowever, properties do not change. Sam Cegarra: "The linear guides are therefore ideal, making our drone hangars more robust and reducing the maintenance effort."
With solutions like the drone hangar, Exabotix manages to grow quickly. "Our devices represent uncompromising German cutting-edge technology in the international market for unmanned aircraft systems," says Mr. Cegarra. Lower Saxony is also convinced: in 2015 the company received the innovation prize Measurement Technology of the country. With this tailwind, Exabotix is currently expanding into a group of companies with the integration of medium-sized suppliers. The company now has 30 employees. Ascending trend. And also for the future a lot is planned. The company is currently considering enlarging the drone hangar. The result would be a container that parcel deliverers could load with five drones to deliver parcels in the countryside.
The author Oliver Cyrus is Head of Press + Advertising at igus GmbH in Cologne.