Use cases & solutions Urban air operations

Drone inspection pilot at Navy port Den Helder

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Last autumn, a pilot took place in the Dutch Royal Navy port in Den Helder in which the Dutch Central Government Real Estate Agency deployed a drone to inspect a number of military buildings. The idea for the inspections came from Bas Engels, employee at the Relationship Management Section of the Central Government Real Estate Agency. Amsterdam Drone Week was allowed to watch for a day.

In his daily work, Engels has nothing to do with building maintenance. But in his spare time, Engels likes to fly a drone. As a hobby. Engels thought that real estate inspections with a drone could probably be more sustainable, faster, cheaper and safer. His idea was well received and only nine months later, on a Monday morning, Engels was standing in the Navy port in Den Helder. For the inspection of the first two of a total of twelve Defense buildings and other government objects. Together, the inspections with drones form the pilot with which knowledge and experience must be gained for the future.

No fly-zone

The day begins with waiting. To be allowed to fly a drone here - on a heavily secured Defense site and in the middle of the no-fly zone (CTR) of Maritime Airbase De Kooy, from where combat helicopters and helicopters for the supply of oil platforms take off - a pre-applied exemption plus permission from the local air traffic control is required. The first has been arranged, permission from the control tower has not yet been given. The clouds around Den Helder are too thick and hang too low. The risk that a helicopter will overlook the inspection drone is too big. There is contact with the control tower of De Kooy every half hour, but for the time being the green light remains off.
Drone operator Coen de Jong and drone observer Toby Enzerink of Airhub are now testing whether everything works. Engels is getting a little restless. “Are those very strict rules really necessary? Helicopters are already flying around the cordoned off drone area.” But here, safety comes first. And without permission from air traffic control, a drone (and its operator) is not insured. In addition, the operator loses his pilot's license.


After lunch, drone operator De Jong receives the redeeming phone call from the control tower: flying is allowed. Engels watches as De Jong sends the drone into the air. Now a comparison can be made with the regular way of real estate inspections. Engels hopes that the trial will provide enough comparative material to draw up a 'drone label', similar to an energy label, just like his colleagues at Public Works and Water Management. Such a label indicates exactly in which cases and situations inspections with drones are faster, more sustainable, cheaper and safer. The pilot is therefore focused on complex objects. That is probably where the most profit can be made.
The drone is just above the roof. From here, in addition to the structural condition, the installation and mechanical engineering installations on the roof can also be viewed. Inspector Marco Nieuwenhuizen already knows that using a drone will save him time. “We no longer have to go through everything ourselves. The drone does a pre-inspection and I only go to see the places I have doubts about.” Engels nods in agreement. “I hope that drones will prove themselves as a tool for us and that in the future there will be less and less inspections to be carried out in the traditional way.”

The drone has flown its first exploratory round around the building. Inspector Nieuwenhuizen instructs drone operator De Jong to fly closer to the facade and to zoom in on details. In this way, the entire building is captured in photos and video. “Loose-fitting facade elements!” Nieuwenhuizen shouts to his colleagues. “Zoom in”, to De Jong. “Furthermore, yes there. Next to the frame. Is that water? And are those pipes hanging loose? Can you get closer?”
Engels watches it from a distance. With a smile from ear to ear. “It's nice to see that the inspectors are so positive. It's their job after all. But they seem to be embracing the new technology.”

Oystercatcher alert!

One of the inspectors points De Jong to two rapidly approaching oystercatchers. The latter quickly sends the drone to the ground. “Those are really annoying birds. I sometimes dream of them," he adds. “Most other bird species keep an appropriate distance from a drone, but oystercatchers attack them. Just as long until 'the enemy' has been driven out.”
When the drone is on the ground, the oystercatcher pair flies loudly over the heads of the group a few more times before flying towards a Navy vessel. Engels makes a note: "Find out about flying during the breeding season."

After the batteries have been replaced, the inspection of the building continues. Navy personnel regularly come outside to see what that drone is up to in front of their windows.
Inspector Nieuwenhuizen is delighted with the new 'toy. “It's really something new in our toolbox. And it makes a big difference in driving aerial platforms back and forth. That's how we've done these kinds of inspections until now." His colleagues can only confirm it. “This adds something.”

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Photo credit: © Rijksvastgoedbedrijf/John van Helvert


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