Benefits in a nutshell
Grain bins present extremely hazardous conditions for workers, with caked grains giving the illusion that there is a solid flooring when in fact it is just a crust that they could fall through. By allowing them to avoid entering the bin in order to collect visual data, the Elios 2 reduces inspectors’ exposure to potential harms like this.
Downtime required for the inspection was reduced by six days—from seven days to less than one day—using the Elios 2, since it was much more efficient than the manual methods usually employed.
Inspectors predict an average savings of $9,000 per grain bin inspection by using the Elios 2. Given that the company performs an average of 280 grain bins a year, savings could amount to as much as $2.5 million a year if all grain bin inspections were performed with an Elios 2.
At big companies, one small improvement can represent huge savings when iterated throughout the entire organization’s work.
Take the case of grain bin inspections—grain bins are typically inspected in-depth every 4-5 years, but they are visually inspected once a year. To gain access to the bins, inspectors usually use ropes to rappel into them, as well as walking on temporary scaffolding erected within the bins.
For a large company that conducts hundreds of these inspections a year, any improvement made to its inspection processes could mean huge savings.
Recently, one of the largest agricultural businesses in the world decided to investigate new technologies to streamline its regular grain bin inspections. In its research, the company learned of Flyability’s Elios 2 and decided to test it to see how effective it might be for inspecting a grain bin.
If the test worked, the company would realize significant savings by reducing the downtime needed for inspections and removing the need for building scaffolding to support an inspector. It would also improve safety for inspectors by removing the need for them to physically enter grain bins in order to collect visual data.
[Grain bins vs. grain silos. Grain bins are large structures that are typically silver and made of corrugated steel, and house dry grains such as corn or soybeans. Grain silos, on the other hand, are typically tall, skinny structures made to hold silage (grass or other fodder that is harvested green and wet, and primarily used as feed for dairy cattle).]
Searching for ways to make its operations safer and more cost-effective, a large company that works in food storage and transportation began seeking new technologies for grain bin inspections.
The goal of grain bin inspections is to review the bins thoroughly so that any potential problems can be identified before they get worse, and require costly fixes or present safety hazards to employees.
Grain arrives at a site on trucks. After delivery, the grain is probed for its temperature and then, depending on the reading, is moved to a specific grain bin (also called a tank) for storage.
Once the grain has been moved to the bin it will sit there in storage until the price for that particular grain—be it corn, soy, or some other type—is right for the company to sell it. At that point, the grain will be loaded onto trains located on-site and shipped to its purchaser.
Grain storage sites can be incredibly busy, especially during harvest season, with trucks arriving and departing constantly, which means that every second of downtime required for an inspection could potentially cost the company money.
The company also wanted to improve safety. Accidents—and even fatalities—do happen in grain bins, and its goal was to eliminate these kinds of incidents altogether.
In addition to these concerns, the company faced operational challenges due to social distancing measures required by the ongoing global pandemic. By testing a drone for grain bin inspections, it hoped to learn more about how drone technology could support the new safety measures required to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
To try and improve its grain bin inspection processes, company personnel tested the Elios 2 at two different grain bins on the same site.
Here are the tasks that the drone was used for during the test:
- Assessing the amount of grain stuck to the walls and ladders
- Assessing the amount of unusable grain at the bottom of the pit
- Assessing the condition of the vertical hanging temperature cables
- Determining the overall condition of the grain bin
- Examining the base concrete and pit concrete structure
- Inspecting the roof feeding port
- Looking for corrosion and damage to the overall bin
- Looking for holes in the walls and roofs of the bin
The test flights were found to be very successful, with the Elios 2 helping inspectors to identify several defects and areas where work was required.
Despite a strong wind on the day of the test flights, which created challenging conditions for flying, the Elios 2 was able to collect all of the visual data required for a full visual inspection.
The quality of the data was quite high, and sufficient to completely replace the need for an inspector to physically enter the grain bin for the additional collection of visual data.
"For these grain bin inspections, the POIs [Points of Interest] taken in flight have almost more value than the video footage since they provide a high-quality overview of the condition of various parts of the bin.”
- Project Supervisor for the grain bin inspection tests
Here are the steps taken to inspect one of the grain bins:
- Recon. Initial reconnaissance flight was made to assess flying conditions within the bin. In the North Bin, the recon flight identified potential threats to the drone, including temperature probes hanging on a string from the roof and tight the space between the walls of the tank and the roof, where the drone could get jammed.
- Full visual coverage. Following the recon flight, inspectors performed several flights focused on specific parts of the bin, including the edge between the bottom and the wall, the edge between the wall and the roof, and the roof (see the image below for the flight paths taken).
- Photogrammetry flights. Flights were also made to collect photogrammetric data within the bin, so that it could later be used to create a 3D map if the client desired.
Following these flights, inspectors reviewed the visual data collected and were able to draw several useful conclusions, some of which are shown in the images below.
Concrete damage to grain pocket:
Corrosion inside a grain bin:
Top feed port assessment:
Large amounts of grain caking on ladder, creating a potential safety hazard:
Given the success of the tests, the company is planning to move forward with using the Elios 2 for more grain bin inspections, as well as testing it for supporting other aspects of its operations.
Personnel at the company estimate that using the Elios 2 for all of its grain bin inspections throughout the world could help it realize an annual savings of $2.5 million.
But this kind of rollout will take time. For now, those overseeing grain bin inspections at the company are happy to have found a new solution that has the potential to make visual inspections safer, while also helping the company realize significant savings.