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Drones instead of Eyes: Guidelines and Collection of Use Case Examples Upgraded for Promoting Safe Use of Drones in Plants

March 27, 2020

For promoting the safe use of drones in the field of plant safety, on March 27, 2020, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), in collaboration with the Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), revised: the Guidelines for Approaches to Safe Operation of Drones in Plants, a compilation for companies to use in the safe operation of drones in the outdoor premises of petroleum refining or petrochemical plants; and the Collection of Use Case Examples in Plants in which case examples of leading companies inside and outside Japan are explained, both of which were formulated in March 2019. In addition, it also compiled a report titled “Study on the Feasibility of Drone-based Inspections as an Alternative to Human Eye-based Inspections in Plants.” The revised guidelines expanded the range of targets on the premises of plants for which companies are allowed to use drones to inspect inside of facilities, e.g., tanks, and highlighted the fact that inspections by drones with a mounted camera can work as an alternative to some human eye-based inspections.

Background

As utilization of drones on the premises of petroleum refining or petrochemical plants will allow plant operating companies to inspect plant facilities with greater ease and thereby to enhance the frequency of inspections, this approach is considered important for such companies not only to enhance the safe and efficient operation of plant machinery, but also to streamline plant safety procedures. In light of this, in March 2019, METI, in collaboration with FDMA and MHLW, developed the guidelines, etc. for companies’ safe drone operation on the premises outside petrochemical plants. This effort has dramatically increased the number of companies starting to use drones on a trial basis for such purposes.

Meanwhile, METI found the following two challenges to be streamlined so as to achieve more full-fledged implementation of such drone-based inspections in plants:

  1. Companies also need to fly drones inside facilities in a safe manner bearing in mind the risk of communication disruption and other incidents when they should confirm not only the external surfaces of tanks and other facilities but also the conditions of the internal surfaces thereof, e.g., corrosions.
  2. Feasibility of inspections using drones with a mounted camera should be verified to see if such drones work as an alternative to human eye-based inspections.

To streamline these challenges, on January 30, 2020, METI, in collaboration with Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd. and Blue innovation Co., Ltd., conducted a demonstration test for flying drones inside tanks.

Overview

Based on the knowledge obtained from the demonstration test and the results of discussions by a study group of experts and other people, METI revised the guidelines and collection of case examples and also newly compiled a report titled “Study on the Feasibility of Drone-based Inspections as an Alternative to Human Eye-based Inspections,” aiming to expand the range of targets for which companies are allowed to use drones to the inside of facilities.

As a result, the revised guidelines expanded the range of targets on the premises of plants for which companies are allowed to use drones to the inside of facilities, e.g., tanks, and uncovered the fact that inspections by drones with a mounted camera can work as an alternative to some human eye-based inspections. These efforts are expected to help companies to use drones for a wider variety of purposes in the field of plant safety and to further enhance the safe and efficient operation of plant machinery.

Highlights of the revised guidelines, etc.

The revised guidelines newly include the inside of facilities, e.g., inside tanks and towers/facilities , to the range of targets for which companies are allowed to fly drones and also newly describe risk assessment and countermeasures against potential risks that companies should conduct to fly drones inside facilities in a safe manner.

The collection of case examples newly presents knowledge for flying drones safely inside facilities in a safe manner, which was obtained from the demonstration test conducted inside the tank at the Chiba Refinery and Petrochemical Plant operated by Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd., and points to be noted which were discussed during the demonstration test.

The new report presents the details of the demonstration test, in particular, concerning the preliminary inspections that companies conduct as human eye-based inspections to identify any failures of facilities, e.g., corrosions, abrasions, scratches, adhering or deposited scales, breakages, cracks and deformed, loosened or peeled parts, and it explicitly describes that verification in the demonstration test uncovered that inspections using drones with a mounted camera can work an alternative to such human eye-based inspections.

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