Peter Slater

Peter Slater

How professionals in industries like oil & gas, construction, mining, utilities and civil infrastructure can and are using drones is a question we’ve explored in great detail with operators and stakeholders at various organizations throughout the United States. The launch of Commercial UAV Europe has compelled us to expand that focus, and with the number of early backers that have committed to supporting the event, it’s clear that countless individuals and organizations are focused on figuring out the intricacies of this regulatory landscape as well as the commercial opportunities for drone business.

After taking a look at the logistics and challenges that operators across Europe are dealing with, I wanted to further explore what it means for an organization to successfully navigating those issues. Peter Slater, Aerial Solutions UAV Manager at Costain Group PLC, was kind enough to answer of all the questions I laid out to him.

Below you’ll find Part 1 of our interview, where Peter Slater explained how drones have impacted the approach Costain is able to take on certain projects, what kind of value propositions the technology has created for their customers, and the logistical challenges they’ve had to work through. In Part 2 of the interview, we explore the regulatory environment that currently exists in the UK and how it impacts what Costain is doing in the present and how those rules factors into future considerations.


Jeremiah Karpowicz: What sort of innovative engineering and technology-led solutions have you been involved with at Costain?

Peter Slater: Costain is a technology led engineering solutions provider. We focus heavily on innovation and implementing technology to ensure that our projects are delivered safely, cost effectively, and on time. This is to ensure that the end user has the best level of service experience.

I have been lucky enough to be involved in a few innovative projects at Costain so far: Nuclear power facilities are one of the most complex assets to construct. I was involved in the feasibility study for a planned, two reactor, Nuclear power plant to be built at Sizewell England. The real challenge was communicating a 1000-page technical engineering report to senior level client delivery team. This was achieved using a construction phase BIM model. Myself and the team created each construction scene in the virtual environment, from project start to handover. We condensed 10 years of construction and £16Bn pounds of investment into a 20-minute virtual construction video.

Digging up roads to access power cables in not sustainable. I was based on site for 6 months during the tunneling and fit out of the London Power Tunnels project. Two tunnels bored for over 30 miles under the city would house 6 massive power cables. These would be readily accessible for maintenance and upgrade without any disruption to city users.

Robotics have huge potential to help us deliver more infrastructure, safer and faster. In 2015 I formed a department in Costain called Aerial Solutions. This was a proactive approach to understanding and implementing RPAS technology into the major frameworks of work we deliver.


Tell us a little bit about your role at Costain that involves the supply chain management and business development of Remote Piloted Airborne Systems (RPAS) in the Aerial Solutions department.

It is important to really understand what each supplier can offer. Working in a wide range of sectors, the requirements of projects can vary. As Costain has a nationwide presence, it is vital that my role involves effective supply chain management to ensure a nationwide coverage of different service provisions.

Aerial Solutions provides consulting to Costain clients and our own projects where there is the ability to improve safety and efficiency. Therefore, it is key to ensure that our knowledge of the industry is excellent and our understanding with regulations is kept up-to-date. Keeping in constant contact with our innovative suppliers provides us the confidence to give the honest truth to customers about the strengths and weaknesses of RPAS technology for their business. A useful tool that I have developed is a map of the UK that includes service providers depending on regional coverage and level of service provision.

Understanding the present is only temporarily beneficial. This is why we work closely with the Department for Transport and Ministry of Defence on their 2020 RPAS vision for the UK. This is the differentiating factor that enables Aerial Solutions to provide holistic advice to our customers in this challenging and unique technology field.


In what ways have drones influenced or impacted the approach Costain takes around those solutions?

Costain has used RPAS on many projects in the various sectors that we operate in. We have used a multitude of different platforms, both fixed wing and multi-rotor for different applications.

The availability of advanced aerial surveying platforms has changed the approach to delivering a number of our engineering solutions. Some of the biggest challenges to overcome when delivering the largest infrastructure projects is safety and integration. Space is a premium on construction sites, too many complex operations are difficult to achieve safely in a small space. RPAS can help free up that space by making better use of the airspace within the site bounds. While traditionally the ground space is a limiting factor I think we should be looking to the airspace and considering how it can help alleviate some congestion. At C610 Crossrail a recent digital map of the site was invaluable to the project directors during their strategy Meeting. Project Director Jerry Hayes talked animatedly how he “got the drone survey up on the big screen and spun it round just like a computer game”. This ability to digitally replicate a highly congested and complex construction site allows effective collaborative planning.

We also provide a significant amount of consulting advice to major asset owners and operators. It is important to consider that RPAS technology can change not just the operation, but also the design of assets. If no person is required to access an asset, then we should consider this in the very early design stages of assets. An emergence of patents for RPAS that carry and apply liquid payload has big implications for painting and maintenance of external and internal asset features. What about deliveries, logistics and robotics arms? Well, that is a whole other story with huge implications.


Can you tell us how you’ve been able to identify a bottom line impact drones are able to create on a given project?

Costain has a strategy where it will deliver its projects on time, cost effectively, and most importantly safely. When things go wrong due to the power of nature, we have the ability to react to quickly changing situations and offer technology led solutions. Early 2016, the south coast of the UK experienced a severe storm which caused significant damage to one of the retaining sea walls causing a strategic rail route to be significantly damaged.

Our client was under a lot of pressure to get this issue resolved. Traditional methods would call upon a Mobile Elevated Working Platform to survey the damage section by section by an engineer. This method is time consuming and unsafe, as the retaining wall could crumble and drop on operatives below. We called upon a multirotor system that was able to survey the entire length of the sea wall and beach front in 1.5 days with a large reduction in costs, over 170 HD images of the crack and track damage were captured as well as an aerial video of the wave profile and longshore drift. A 3D model was generated using photogrammetry software. The 3D model allowed engineers to verify that the remediation works being carried out was to the correct design slope. Not only was valuable data captured, but no one was put in any sort of danger and no engineers were required to walk on the wet and slippery sea wall. This provided cost reductions of at least 30% and carbon emission reductions of over 50% as the RPAS platform is battery powered and the MEWPs are diesel powered.

In addition, During the ongoing remediation works RPAS are being used to regularly survey the new sea defences and compared to the design model. This is reducing overall survey costs by 40% and removing the need for operatives to climb onto the sea defence to survey the profile.


What can you tell us about the “Engineering Tomorrow” solution, which you offer to your clients for their construction, operation and maintenance needs?

Costain is an engineering solutions provider, delivering integrated consulting, project delivery and operations and maintenance services, with a portfolio spanning 150 years of innovation and technical excellence. The Group's core business segments are in Energy, Water and Transportation.

The Group’s ‘Engineering Tomorrow’ strategy involves focusing on blue chip customers in chosen sectors whose major spending plans are underpinned by strategic national needs, regulatory commitments or essential maintenance requirements.

Costain is working on a number of high profile contracts in the UK incorporating a broad range of innovative services across the whole life-cycle of our customers’ assets, from inception right through to completion of a project and management of their assets.

These are exciting times as our blue-chip customers continue to invest billions of pounds in upgrading and renewing the country’s energy, water and transportation infrastructure. The way in which that money is being spent continues to change profoundly, and the Group’s unique ‘Engineering Tomorrow’ strategy successfully positions the business to provide the range of innovative integrated services demanded by those customers.

Not only are our customers’ programmes defined by significant and long-term planned expenditure underpinned by committed regulated spend and essential capital investment, but there is a revolution in the deployment of technology-led innovative solutions to meet the increasingly complex capacity and service delivery requirements of our national infrastructure needs. We are continuing to rapidly transform the Costain business to be at the heart of the opportunity this presents, including developing the necessary skills and capabilities within the Group. We finished the period with an increased total head count of over 4,200 of which over 1,000 are now deployed in advisory or consultancy roles.


What kind of value propositions have you seen created with drones both for Costain and your customers?

Whilst I cannot divulge a wealth of detail, one good example would be for the combination of capabilities of Sky-Futures and Costain to deliver asset maintenance contracts for confined spaces. This is based on the Elios hardware and Sky-Futures expanse software. Costain providing the engineering solutions and analysis of data gathered and program managing the project delivery. This is an excellent example of two technology led engineering companies working together to integrate a new technical capability into the industry. This particularly focuses on the surveying of confined spaces, tanks, internals and other challenging and complex internal spaces.


What sort of challenges have you dealt with in your efforts to effectively leverage drone technology?

By far the greatest challenge has been one of communication. Many will say the regulations are the greatest challenge. But that is not true, all industries are regulated many far more strictly than RPAS. Once you understand the regulations the value added areas for RPAS become very clear and actions can be taken.

But how do you enable the other 4000+ persons in a business to understand this dynamic, and then your customers too! Risk assessment of the unknown will always result in barriers. Therefore taking your business and customers on a journey of learning as absolutely the most important part of integrating this technology effectively. We have used almost every medium, to reach each person by their preferred means of learning. We have done blogs, technical papers, governance documents, dozens of presentations, videos, emails, webinars and good old fashion chin wagging at the water dispenser.

Having said that, significant challenges are still present in the integration of this technology into complex congested areas. Knowing the regulations to the letter is the only way to do this safely and legally. I recommend getting information directly from the regulators or their official documents, it is very easy to get lead astray by here-say and “they did it so we can do it mentality”. Also be mindful that specific customer’s/land owners may have specific rules not covered by the regulators. Network rail is an excellent example of this.


In Part 2 of this interview we explore the current regulatory environment in the UK, how regulation has influenced what Costain wants to be doing with drones, what role privacy concerns play in this issue and plenty more.