Toulouse-based Delair has made great strides in developing its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) business since formation in 2011, but head of production Benjamin Michel tells Power Engineering International the company is in no mood for slowing down.

Founded by experts in the aerospace industry, it has offices in Ghent, Belgium; Los Angeles and Singapore. The company has an impressive record in serving numerous sectors. Right now, it’s UAV fleet can be found in utilities, agriculture and forestry, defense, mining, oil, gas and road maintenance, but it was in its home country of France that the company first found its feet.
Delair fixed drone inspections and monitoring
“We realised that power grids and pipelines in France could benefit from the use of airborne systems. Such craft are useful and efficient in areas where it is difficult to deploy manned aircraft, and it’s also more cost-efficient.”

From initial, tentative steps in the power and utilities area, the company has expanded its offering of fixed-wing aircraft of various sizes, configurations and payload capacities, and has developed its own proficiencies in complementary software and services aimed at serving that market.

“Inspecting power grids were our first experience in the power area. It became a wide field for us and basically, we developed UAV systems able to fly over high voltage power lines. We started to work for the main power manager in France, EDF and from there we developed service and software solutions aimed at analysis of the power grid. The analytics involved allow you to process and transform, enabling better insight into the power grid, facilitating better decisions based on that analysis.”

The solution is seen as preferable to traditional, risky methods such as manned helicopter flights, and produced the company’s first end to end solution for the power grid. The company’s ownership weren’t happy to be a one dimensional drone provider.

“The foundation pillar for us as a company was our hardware solutions and we are very strong in this area. We then gravitated downstream to develop analytics and our software platform.”

“If you limit to yourself to hardware you can’t fulfil all requirements for your customer. Generally, when you talk to big accounts such as green power managers, they want an end to end solution so we took the risk to cover both ends of the system, and its proved to be the right thing to do.”

“Our software process also allows us to address the data from other UAVs, as the system is not closed only to the hardware produced by Delair- it is a system that is open and modular.”

The southern French firm has worked hard at perfecting the software accompaniment to its service. Previously called Delair Stack, the platform is being renamed as the company deepens its partnership with Intel. The two companies announced a partnership last year, where Delair is the technology provider and operator of Intel’s cloud-based solution, Intel Insight.

Delair fixed drone inspections and monitoring - imagery from drone inspection

The two companies are working together to provide a hardware-agnostic, scalable platform for aerial imagery storage and business intelligence, globally.

“We developed most of the software internally,” says Michel. “We built a frame or workspace that is a general container of features that can be useful not only for utilities but agriculture and the other verticals we cover. So, we built this general environment and we developed some of the algorithms. On the other side we also used third party tools. When we find the best tools externally we incorporate them, too. So, it’s a mix of partnership-based software and algorithms we continue to develop on this platform and feeds into our overall benchmark analytics. What we cannot find, we develop ourselves.”

The company now serves more than 70 countries and have a very active business in North America in particular, ‘with very intensive requirements from that region, in particular.’ For the utility market, in Europe its most notable clients are EDF, RTE, and Enedis in France, LANDSET in Iceland, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and Southwestern Company in the US.

Among the use for Delair drones in utilities are routine and emergency assessment of equipment conditions; digitization of assets such as powerlines and poles; monitoring of vegetation encroachment; and surveying of corridors for infrastructure deployment. Ultimately, what the company does is assist more informed decision making.

“We increase the life span of assets by mitigating risk as part of maintenance plans – preventive maintenance features that you have for your asset.”

As the company evolves to the challenges associated with each marketplace, its R&D unit continues to produce new solutions.

Just last week (6th March) Belgium’s main transmission systems operator, Elia used a Delair fixed-wing drone to successfully completed a demonstration flight along a 70kV high-voltage line in Sint-Truiden, Belgium. The unmanned aerial vehicle took off from Droneport, an incubator for drones, and completed a 10 km flight lasting 30 minutes.

The system operator wants to deploy drones to inspect Belgium’s high-voltage grid, which comprises more than 5,700 km of high-voltage overhead lines.

At the moment, drone flights that operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), while technically possible and an area where Delair has considerable experience, require special permits in some jurisdictions . The aim of the test flight was to demonstrate that such long-distance flights can be conducted safely.

In fact, last year Delair completed a record breaking flight for a UAV when successfully completed a BVLOS flight of 30 miles via 3G cell network for the purposes of modelling the power grid of France‘s RTE. 

Meanwhile, last month, the company introduced the next generation of its high-performance Delair DT26X LiD

AR UAV, the industry’s first long-range fixed wing drone to combine highly accurate Light Distance and Ranging (LiDAR) sensing capabilities with an integrated high resolution RGB (red, green, blue) camera, dramatically increasing the precision, efficiency and cost effectiveness of surveying and 3D mapping.

Details of the new model were revealed at the International Lidar Mapping Forum, in Denver.

Aerial-based LiDAR allows for extremely detailed and accurate collection of elevation data of the ground, even in large and vegetated areas, but is typically performed with specialized, single function platforms or expensive manned aircraft surveys with long lead times.