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Daikin gives drones a whirl to slash plant inspection times

Remote-controlled cameras can reach high places and cut risk of heatstroke

A worker flies a drone at a Daikin Industries factory in Kusatsu, east of Kyoto. (Photo by Toshiki Sasazu)

OSAKA -- Daikin Industries plans to roll out drones in its factories this month that can cut the time needed for checks in hard-to-reach places by more than 80%, leveraging a technology that still sees little use among Japanese manufacturers.

At the company's Kusatsu plant located just east of Kyoto, the technology is already on display. On a recent day, an operator with a remote control, standing alongside a production line for air conditioners used in rooms, launched a drone into the air. The device, made by China's DJI, checked a container 8 meters off the ground that collects oil from manufacturing heat exchangers.

Previously, this task took about an hour and required a special vehicle to lift a human worker up to look at the container. This was particularly difficult in the summer, when high demand for air conditioners meant that employees had to work around busy production schedules.

Now, a worker can send up a drone, check the display from its high-resolution 4K camera, and record the results in just 10 minutes.

Daikin is also using drones to inspect roller conveyors used to carry outdoor air conditioning units at warehouses. Wear and tear caused by friction can cause the rollers to stop working, leaving products stuck. Daikin now marks the rollers with a heat-sensitive pigment and sends drones to look for any changes in color each time the conveyors are used.

Rollers at the plant run close to the ceiling, where temperatures can rise to nearly 40 C in summer. Having a drone with a camera handle inspections rather than a human "can reduce the risk of heatstroke," said Hirotoshi Ogura, head of production at the facility.

Daikin plans to add four drone operators next year, with an eye toward using them for other checks and at more plants.

Drones have been used to inspect bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure, but Japanese manufacturers have been slow to adopt the technology, citing a lack of operators and inadequate usage guidelines.

Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory has made strides in this field, developing technology that allows drones to fly themselves on preset routes for inspections.

Meanwhile, drones are "in the field test stage" at many major manufacturers, said Takashi Oki of the Mitsubishi Research Institute.

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