Inventory Management in
the Field

Counting Inventory In 2 Minutes with a Drone and AI

What’s the most efficient way to measure and record the lengths of thousands of feet of pipes? A pencil, clipboard, and tape measure will do the job, but what if there was an easier way?
What if we could reduce a three-person measurement team to one operator of a drone?
This was our goal as we considered the challenge of counting and measuring joints used in oil and gas drilling.

The Task: Count a Lot of Pipes Laid Out in the Hot Texas Sun

Drilling projects require hundreds of pipes, measuring thousands of feet in total length, to be inspected, counted, and prepared on a regular basis. Most of this work is done by hand, with a tape or laser measure, and a crew calling out the lengths to be recorded manually on paper. At its most efficient, the work requires multiple people to measure each pipe, one by one, in a time-consuming, tedious process.
The tedium of the work can introduce human error – crews must maintain good communication and accurately record the correct length to the correct joint, all while working outdoors in potentially difficult weather conditions. An incorrect record of joint lengths may result in having too few pipes arrive at a rig site, a problem that can cause costly schedule delays. Moreover, further costs are incurred when a truck must go back and carry a small load from the preparation yard back to the site, just to make up for the mistake in the initial delivery.
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First Attempt: Phones

In general, PhotoGAUGE has focused on using smartphone cameras to capture data about the world around us. Today’s phones contain cameras and sensors that have the potential to revolutionize the way we measure, inspect, and analyze physical objects. We leverage this technology to perform in-depth photogrammetric analysis on parts that customers encounter out in their respective fields.
So for this particular case, it was natural for our first attempt to try to tackle the problem using handheld smartphone footage. Plus, crews were already walking around all the pipes that needed to be measured. Instead of using tape measures, we thought, an operator could take their smartphone and film the pipes while walking along their perimeter.
Initial results were mixed — while the process was faster, scans weren’t coming back in a reliable, consistent way. Despite the improvement in process speed, we noted that mistakes could still be made during the smartphone shoot if operators did not keep the correct areas in focus and in frame for the duration of the shoot. A significant drawback to the handheld approach was that if a mistake was made in the middle of a shoot, the video would have to be stopped and tried again. From an operator’s perspective, it could be difficult to maintain enough focus at all times during a 5-6-minute shoot to capture all of the areas needed for an adequate scan.

Second Attempt: Drone with a Human’s Eye View

Luckily, PhotoGAUGE is not limited to smartphones. We can work with 4K resolution video, regardless of how it is obtained. We needed to film a relatively large swath of land and see what was laid out on it; the use case at hand presented itself as a clear candidate for our first foray into drone experimentation.
A drone seemed like the perfect tool to transform our inconsistent smartphone results into the data we needed to accurately help our customer optimize their tally process.
Our first drone solution attempts involved flying the drone along the perimeter of the laid-out pipes, basically mirroring the path followed by operators doing the handheld shoots. This naïve first attempt was the beginning of a series of experiments and iterations focused on determining a flight path that would provide all the footage needed to conduct our analysis, while minimizing flight time and operator intervention.
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Third Attempt: Drone with a Bird’s Eye View

The next evolution from the perimeter-bound flightpath was a bird’s eye view, single-pass flyover of the entire group of pipes.
This was a great success. The tallying process, once measurable in half-hours when done manually, had been reduced to less than 2 minutes of flight time with the drone.
This marked the completion of the first part of the PhotoGAUGE solution development process, finding an appropriate shooting strategy to capture the requisite information needed for analysis.
At this point, PhotoGAUGE’s engineers began brainstorming ways to optimize the process to make it more effective, reliable, and user-friendly. Focus shifted from capturing good footage, to refining the results we were seeing, and using our experience in computer vision and machine learning to streamline the measurement process.
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Taking it Further: A Customized AI App

Every iteration of our problem-solving methodology involves careful back-end analysis of the footage and usability of results. Customer ease-of-use is another key consideration. While the jump to a single-pass flight marked a major development in delivering a solution to the customer, the engineering team realized further optimization could be achieved.
So, we created an app. This let us transition from manual flight controls. The app took the difficulty of flying the drone out of the operator’s hands and automated the most difficult parts of using the drone. The app was designed so the operator could make fine adjustments and exercise control over an emergency landing. PhotoGAUGE worked continuously with the customer to develop a control scheme that operators felt comfortable with, and could operate on their own. Ultimately, we were able to deliver a drone solution that the customer could use independently, and provide them with the counts and measurements that they needed.

Conclusion: First-Principles Experimentation Creates Very Efficient Solutions

This case study is a good example of what makes PhotoGAUGE unique. We work closely with our customers to develop solutions they can use, and provide them with the results that they need. We’re able to use our experience across several different industries to field and deploy meaningful solutions. Our global team works hard to develop solutions that customers can put into immediate use, and we continually advise and train our customers on how to use our technology to their benefit.
This mindset informs our approach to problem solving, and allows PhotoGAUGE to investigate a variety of different possibilities to find efficient and original solutions on behalf of its customers.

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