Innovation Global
April 17, 2019 | 8 min read

The Future Is Up In the Air


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ICL’s new elite unit isn’t human — new drones used at company sites carry sensitive equipment, monitor all activities from above, and save human employees from the need to work in dangerous environments.

Autonomous drones — you see them everywhere these days, hear them buzzing around every corner. Drones, which burst into our lives just a few years ago thanks to technological improvements in electric engines and lithium-ion batteries, are no longer in use by photography teams alone.

Today, drones are  effective tools which can save companies time and money. Drones can also undertake assignments which are dangerous to humans. ICL’s Innovation and Operational Excellence department, in collaboration with one of ICL’s sites, conducted a successful pilot using drones. After this initial success, the pilot was expanded and was fully implemented in two of ICL’s sites in Israel – Dead Sea Works and Rotem.

The Innovation and Operational Excellence department identifies innovative and advanced technologies which assist with the operational challenges of the company and improve its performance. The department operates in four major fields: The Internet of Things, Wearable Equipment, Autonomous Operation, and Machine Learning. The use of drones is a new area of exploration that the department has been focused on.

Drones are effective tools which can save companies time and money, and can also undertake assignments which are dangerous to humans.

The main advantage of drones naturally lies in their flying ability, which gives them easy and accurate access to locations over great distances or heights. This ability neutralizes the effect of challenging land conditions — drones can easily and quickly fly over unpaved roads, water obstacles, and uneven terrain.

Drones can also carry equipment, such as cameras and sensors of various kinds, including video cameras, infra-red night-sight cameras and various inspection tools (like specific chemical detection tools). They can also deliver light cargo from place to place. All these uses make drones a tool with almost unlimited application options.

Additionally, drones operate autonomously. Monitoring by a human operator is needed only to supervise. The operator must become involved only in rare and unusual situations.

In the two ICL sites mentioned, drones are expected to serve in diverse ways, starting with the inspection of high-voltage networks and batteries, through the monitoring of equipment and security patrols and ending with the delivery of spare parts (up to 10kgs).

The Innovation and Operational Excellence department has identified the potential in working with drones and has set up a joint team with the operation unit in the company’s Dead See Works site  to test how implementable the technology is. Following a thorough examination of the technology that ended successfully, the drones are now entering full service in DSW and Rotem sites. It was decided to set up two drone systems in each site — one for patrolling and scanning purposes and the other for deliveries. The patrolling and scanning drone will allow security teams to get to every location around the perimeter of the site in a particularly brief time. This will enable them to verify whether an alert they received was a false one or a case of real emergency. In the latter case, the security team will be able to maintain constant contact with the threat up until the response team arrives at the spot. Additionally, the drones can assist in inspecting different facilities and in the early identification of failures, sparing human employees from the need to work under dangerous conditions.

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Drive into the future

The delivery drones will save human delivery employees from the need to drive all the way to the team in the field and back. This  will reduce the traffic of vehicles across the sites, lower the time of work stoppage caused by waiting for spare parts or needed permits and reduce the cost of vehicle maintenance. The drones will deliver tools, spare parts and work permits to field teams with unmatchable speed and a cost of only a few cents per kilometer.

The implementation of drone use is not without some challenges. The use of drones in factory work is considered a complex process. It requires permits from the Civil Flight Authority and others , as well as building a suitable technical infrastructure and operator training. ICL’s Innovation and Operational Excellence team have conducted a review of all available systems in the market and have found the systems that are   most suitable for ICL sites’ specific requirements and environmental conditions. The  enormous potential justifies the investment. Drones are a platform which has many uses and  their technology will continue to evolve.  ICL’s Innovation and Operational Excellence team is already looking into additional ways to implement drones in ICL operations to save money, time and risks in the future.

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