Drone Based Thermal Power Plant Inspection | FlytNow

Pampa Energía, Argentina's largest independent energy company, specializes in the electricity, oil, and gas value chains. Headquartered in Buenos Aires, it engages in intense oil and gas exploration and production activities. It has a presence in 13 production areas and 5 exploration areas in the most significant basins of the nation. 

Through its power plants, the company has attained the capacity to generate about 5,000 barrels of oil and 9 million cubic meters of gas per day. In addition, it produces 4,970 MW of electricity through wind, hydroelectric, and thermal power plants. Listed on the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange (BCBA) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), it thrives on the vision of becoming an emblematic company known for its commitment, growth, and operational excellence.

How Pampa Energía Conducted Thermal Power Station Inspection with Drones

In 2017, Pampa Energía integrated drones into their asset inspection operations and have since expanded to a fleet of nine different drones to assist in their large-scale operations. During inspections, they primarily use the Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced and Matrice 200 series drones for photo imaging and analysis.

These drones enable them to quickly cover large areas and capture tens of thousands of photographs, which are then stitched together into an orthomozaic to create an accurate representation of the plant. Pampa Energía conducts three types of inspections:

1. Periodic

Pampa requires periodic inspections of their pipelines, docks, tanks, chimneys, high-voltage towers, boilers, and electric grids, for example, every week. These inspections are crucial to ensure that assets are functioning correctly, as issues like corrosion or lateral structures near the pipeline often go unnoticed during a manual inspection.

2. Planned

Conducted once a year, these inspections primarily consist of land surveys of electric grids, roads, and terrain and are necessary for new construction and infrastructure development.

3. Triggered

Triggered inspections are only carried out when there is a specific problem that needs to be assessed, such as the surveillance of oilfields and pipelines.

Challenges Faced by Pampa Energía with Manual Drone Inspections

As the demand for energy in Argentina grew, continuous monitoring and preventive maintenance of the Genelba Thermal Power Plant (CTGEBA) became critical to ensure uninterrupted operations. With a total capacity of 1,253 MW, representing 2.9% of the nation's installed capacity, the plant required frequent inspections to maintain safety and efficiency. However, as the plant expanded, manual inspections became increasingly challenging and time-consuming, leading to two major difficulties:

1. Increase in drone inspection rounds

As the Genelba Thermal Power Plant grew in size, it required a large number of manual visual inspection rounds to be carried out to cover the new equipment. This gradually increased the time required to cover the entire power plant for thermal inspection. The available inspectors were no longer able to cover the entire power plant in a single shift, resulting in a significant gap in the inspection timeline.

2. Difficulty in conducting perimeter security tours

The site, which is located in the province of Buenos Aires, is more than 970,000 square feet in size, making it one of the country's largest thermal power plants.

Because the team had to constantly set up their base station, replace drone batteries, and transfer data manually after a certain distance, conducting security tours throughout the plant became much more difficult and time-consuming.

Optimizing Inspection of Thermal Power Plants with Drone-in-a-Box Solution

As part of its Digital Transformation strategy, Pampa Energía sought to optimize the inspection routes at the Genelba power plant. Rather than hiring additional employees and drone pilots, they decided to explore the use of autonomous drones to simultaneously carry out maintenance planning, inspections and security operations.

Phased Implementation Process

The deployment has been carried out in several stages, as follows:

  • First, a proof of concept test was conducted to evaluate various docking stations, battery recharge technologies, and control software.
  • The selected technologies were then purchased, and a highly thorough series of tests were run to ensure that the equipment's functionality and how it interacted with one another were both verified.
  • A determined and tested set of paths were determined for the drone.

Additionally, the present and upcoming team members also received training on how to use this technology to carry out drone missions.

The biggest benefit that drone-in-a-box systems provided was the dual functionality. The team at Pampa intended to deploy these systems across their power plants for inspection as well as security. The inspection team could use the docking station to do monitoring and maintenance of the plants during the daytime and in the nighttime they use the same devices for security.

Why Pampa Energía Chose FlytNow as their DiaB Operations Software

As Marcelo Lopez, Pampa Energía's Project Manager, pointed out “We wanted to optimize inspection routes at the Genelba power plant since the area was too large for inspectors to cover in a single shift. We decided to employ the FlytNow-powered autonomous drone-in-a-box solution due to its superior unattended flight technology and affordable price. The FlytNow customer success team has been dedicated to resolving customer issues. They are aware of industry developments, are attentive to their customer's needs, and capable of handling challenges.”

Here’s how they benefited from autonomous drone-in-a-box systems powered by FlytNow:

1. Improvement in inspection rounds:

FlytNow enabled Pampa Energía's operations team and inspectors to schedule and execute repeatable drone missions along pre-established routes, stopping at specific points of interest to view assets remotely.

The remote control of the drone's camera payload allowed for efficient zooming to detect faults or abnormalities in the power plants. Compared to manual inspections, FlytNow resulted in faster and more efficient rounds, significantly reducing the time and effort required to inspect large areas like the Genelba plant. 

Here’s how an inspection routine looked like:

Furthermore, the team utilized drone docking stations to perform security patrols at regular intervals, effectively monitoring the premises for any potential intrusions. By deploying drones to the site prior to security personnel, the team was able to proactively prepare for incidents, while simultaneously saving time and resources in terms of fuel and personnel typically required for routine patrols. The image below depicts a typical security patrol mission:

2. Reduction in accidents:

Given that, in a thermal power station the potential for devastating mishaps due to high pressures and temperatures is very high, it is crucial to ensure the safety of workers while maintaining the smooth operation of the plant. With the ability to send drones autonomously at a click of a button, the team can now access hard-to-reach or dangerous areas with ease, without having to send the local team in harm’s way.

By remotely monitoring the plant's critical infrastructure and systems, the team can quickly identify and address any issues before they escalate into major accidents, thereby reducing the risks associated with human error.

Additionally, FlytNow with a host of security features enabled the safety of the drone & the dock as well. With features such as:

  • Failsafes: FlytNow is equipped with various failsafe mechanisms that provide assistance in case of emergencies. For instance, in the event of a lost RC link or internet connectivity, the drone can either pause until the connection is restored or perform a controlled emergency landing at a predetermined safe location in case of low battery alerts. These failsafe mechanisms and timeout settings can be easily customized and configured by the team to ensure optimal safety during drone operations.

  • Geofence: The operators also have the ability to create virtual fences around the area of their operation and prevent the drone from entering restricted zones by taking specific actions if the fence is breached.

  • Collision avoidance: FlytNow enables collision avoidance by constantly scanning the drone's surroundings for potential obstacles. A real-time radar map with red, yellow, and green indicators is displayed on the operator's screen, allowing them to safely maneuver the drone around obstacles. This feature provides an additional layer of safety and helps prevent accidents, making it easier to navigate through challenging or unknown environments.

3. Better precise documentation:

The advanced video and image capture capabilities of FlytNow provide operators with a clear and accurate view of the plant in real-time. Moreover, the cloud media sync feature enabled operators to conveniently upload media from their drone's SD card directly to a pre-configured private cloud storage (AWS S3), without any disruption in their workflow. The archived data can be stored, organized, and shared across various stakeholders directly from the FlytNow dashboard to increase operational efficiency and situational awareness.

4. Real-time guest share:

By using FlytNow, remote inspections can be conducted from a centralized command center and shared in real-time with stakeholders both inside and outside the plant. With role-based access, security officers can access the video feed on their preferred device and take action as needed. The "Video Streaming Optimization" feature allows for optimization of the video stream for better FPS or picture quality even in areas with limited or poor bandwidth connections. The video below demonstrates a typical operation conducted at the Genelba Power Plant. 

The Way Ahead for Pampa Energía with Autonomous DiaB Solution

As the second-highest per capita energy consumer in South America, Argentina faces increasing demand for electricity, driven by the need for space heating. With thermal power plants being the most reliable source of energy generation, their continuous operation is crucial to meet the country's energy needs.

Once the Pampa Energía's deployment of autonomous drones at the Genelba power plant proves to be successful in enhancing operational efficiency and reducing the risk of accidents, the company plans to expand its drone-in-a-box program to several other power plants, ensuring a safer and more efficient operation while maximizing the return on investment.

Achal Negi, Director of Business Development at FlytBase, highlights the potential drone-in-a-box systems hold for the future of thermal plant inspection and monitoring. He concludes by stating that: “Currently, manual inspection of thermal power plants is a time-consuming and potentially hazardous task for workers. By using autonomous drones for these inspections, energy companies can increase efficiency and safety for workers and reduce any potential down-time of the plant. Furthermore, the use of automated drones for thermal power station inspection with drones and docks offer more frequent and thorough inspections and also improve night-time security operations for power stations. We will see more autonomous drone-in-a-box deployments in power plants in the coming years.”

At NestGen ‘22, Marcelo Lopez, discussed their operations in detail. Watch the entire video to learn more:

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