Drone technology dates back to the 1960s where they were first used in the Vietnam War. Although shelved post-war, the technology received a massive boost in popularity following advances in smartphone technology. Many industries are now actively exploring how drones can be employed to streamline operations, with practical applications already widespread in photography and real estate where drones take aerial shots. But for the manufacturing industry, drones have far more potential than just to take pictures. They are able to capture information in ways that are typically too difficult, dangerous or boring for humans.

Of course, they need supporting digital infrastructure to ensure the success of drone deployments within the industry but if manufacturers focus on implementing drones along with complementary technology, then they will see some major operational improvements. In particular I would like to highlight these three areas:

1. Monitoring assets in a fraction of the time

Essential asset monitoring and inventory checks in the manufacturing industry are currently carried out manually by staff in what is a lengthy and time-consuming process. Drones present a great opportunity to improve how asset monitoring is performed across the sector. By scanning radio frequency identification chips and barcodes, drones can perform inventory checks in warehouses and manufacturing plants. The oil and gas industry is a strong use case for this application and demonstrates the potential benefits for the manufacturing sector. Asset monitoring procedures in oil and gas performed by a drone can take as little as 10% of the time that a workforce-lead check would take. Saving time on this scale would allow workforces more resources to concentrate on production rather than monitoring tasks.

2. Carrying out simple and safe inspections

Faults in the production line and other machinery can hinder or even halt production. It is difficult to prevent faults when you do not have an overall view of the machinery. Infrared and thermal technology can inform operations managers of the temperature of production lines and machinery. Temperatures that record too high can indicate a problem within the machinery. Operators can quickly address and repair the issue before it affects the production process, saving the manufacturer both time and money.

The images recorded can also act as a plant maintenance record to be kept on file. Plant managers will benefit from increased compliance thanks to records of temperature checks, production line observations and faults from drone images.

Improved health and safety compliance is another benefit of drone technology. Inspections need to be completed on a regular basis as part of routine plant maintenance, and those required in hard to reach places often require a shutdown of operations so the inspection can be performed in a safe manner. Drones can inspect machinery in unsafe locations without compromising staff safety or production.

3. Enhancing in-plant connectivity

Large plants have numerous work areas with a central warehouse stocking parts for the production line. Transporting these parts to different work areas is time-consuming and interrupts production. With the capacity to carry around 5kg, drones can fly to central warehouses to collect spare parts and deliver them to work areas. From a safety perspective, these drones are programmed to fly over the plant buildings and only over crossings if unavoidable. Obstacles are also recorded in real time and pre-programmed routes can be altered accordingly to avoid the obstacle.

Programming flight routes for deliveries are not limited to this application. Drones can also provide solutions for picking and packing purposes. Drones will be pre-programmed to move around warehouses selecting products for specific orders to be taken to the packing area. Although such an application is yet to be realised, the technology is available to be implemented.

Supporting software is imperative for success

Drones are not just a technology fad. They have multiple benefits for the manufacturing industry which can all come together to improve productivity, monitoring procedures and compliance. But manufacturers need to look to an experienced services partner to help them implement drone technology into their procedures if organisations want to reap the rewards of drones on a long-term basis. For drones to become widespread in manufacturing organisations, reliable supporting technology needs to be in place. Application services are required to assist from the initial deployment of drones through to continued ongoing support to ensure manufacturers are realising the full potential of this technology. Manufacturing organisations that invest in drones to optimise their production without also investing in an applications management solution will only achieve limited success.