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Advancing Drone Use Beyond Visual Inspection: Nondestructive Testing Utilizing Aerial Robotic Systems

Traditional nondestructive testing (NDT) techniques may require extensive manual testing by the inspector, often at vertical heights that must be accessed with equipment such as scaffolding, lifts, and ladders. While NDT inspection programs dramatically increase the safety and integrity of physical assets and infrastructure (such as petrochemical facilities, ships, elevated water towers, etc.), access requirements for performing these inspections introduces risk to the inspector and the work site. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can improve the safety and efficiency of performing NDT by completing the required measurements with workers remaining safely on the ground. This abstract addresses the current state of the technology, operating procedures, benefits, and limitations accompanied with utilizing aerial robotic systems as a viable means of NDT testing. Aerial robotics is an emerging technology that enables NDT sensors, such as an ultrasonic testing (UT) probe, to contact a wall surface using a special purpose custom drone with a robotic arm and hand (end effector). A drone configured to conduct contact-based NDT should be equipped with an array of sensor systems, an onboard computer, and custom software to allow autonomous flight to contact surfaces for measurements. Autonomous flight utilizes the onboard computer to programmatically fly the aircraft to the surface to be tested, and touch a particular spot to take NDT measurements without the assistance of a pilot. Using software controlled aerial robotic systems to perform contact-based inspections at height is a novel approach that has yet to be integrated into standard operations at industrial facilities. As the industry advances towards adopting drones/aerial robots as tools for inspection practices, it is critical to evaluate the associated performance and limitations.

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