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Drones have been taking flight over Northwest Indiana's industrial lakeshore.

ArcelorMittal and BP have been using the unmanned aerial vehicles that started as military aircraft for missions deemed too "dull, dirty, or dangerous," but that since have evolved into being used for a number of civilian applications like photography and agriculture. Now a popular Christmas present and toy for the gadget set, drones are being used for everything from racing to scientific research.

Remote-controlled drones have become increasingly common at the Region's major industrial workplaces along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

BP has been using drones to do inspections of pipelines and high-up places at its sprawling 1,400-acre BP Whiting Refinery, where flare stacks and other equipment can rise hundreds of feet into the air.

"BP has been experimenting with drones since 2006 and continues to expand their use in our operations," spokesman Michael Abendhoff said. "This important technology allows us to create a safer work environment by examining hard-to reach places in our manufacturing operations, perform aerial inspections of pipelines to ensure integrity and check for encroachment, and combine with LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to create 3D imaging of remote drilling sites."

ArcelorMittal has used drones to map the geographic footprints of their plants, conduct inventory and visually inspect rooftops where it was too dangerous or difficult to send up an inspector.  

“This technology is evolving quickly, and we have a lot of expertise throughout our company," said Larry Fabina, manager of continuous improvement at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor. "ArcelorMittal values learning and leadership and that’s what the network is about. Drones have the potential to help transform our industry and how we do business. We want to be on the cutting-edge of that, so we bring people together to learn and share best practices."

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ArcelorMittal has started a drone network group with representatives from 32 of its facilities worldwide to figure out how to best deploy the technology at its mills.

"We want to continue to exploit the power of drone technology," Fabina said. "We have successfully taken the first steps using this technology as a tool to acquire data and information in a safe and reliable manner, which is a huge step. The next step is to further streamline not only how we use drones to acquire information but also how we interpret and analyze that information. Integrating drones with other technologies like LIDAR, artificial intelligence and augmented analytics is the next frontier.” 

The company said the drones help ensure worker safety and save time on a number of tasks, including surveying and monitoring utilities.

“There are important tasks, like furnace inspections, that can take days, even up to a week, to do safely because they involve erecting scaffolding, managing the risks of working in a confined space, etc.," said Chris Mathews, area manager of IT operations at AM/NS Calvert in Alabama, a finishing operation supplied with feedstock from its Northwest Indiana mills. "With a drone, we can accomplish the same task in only 8 or 9 hours. The drone flies in, collects the data and video footage we need, and then our team can analyze the video from a safe position and plan what maintenance work needs to be done in the next scheduled outage.”

The Luxembourg-based steelmaker, which employs more than 10,000 steelworkers in Northwest Indiana, said the goal was not to replace workers but to make them more productive.

“One of the best advantages of our drone program is the human factor," said Henry Cuevas, senior project engineer in the high energy group at ArcelorMittal Cleveland. "We are protecting the safety of our workers. Plus, our employees are excited and motivated by how our centuries-old industry is using new technologies to be better.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.