UAVs Across Europe: Commercial Drone Applications in the Netherlands

Netherlands UAV

by  João Antunes from Commercial UAV News

The Netherlands has a favorable regulatory environment for the use of drones and is actively looking for innovation and development in drone technology. Valued at $28.12M in 2023, it is expected that the Dutch drone market will grow by 0.58 percent annually until 2028. According to the International Trade Administration, the number of drones in the agriculture, energy and infrastructure, security, delivery, and mobility sectors is expected to more than quadruple from 2019 to 2050.

As a follow-up to the first part of the UAVs Across Europe series where we explored various drone applications in Germany, we will now focus on how drones are being used in The Netherlands.

The innovation ecosystem for autonomous and uncrewed intelligent systems

Officially launched in 2023, DronePort Rotterdam is an initiative created by INSPIR8ION and the Port of Rotterdam to redefine the future of autonomous and uncrewed assets and innovative mobility solutions in the region. The idea is to create “an entire ecosystem that is resilient, innovative, and adaptable to the evolving needs of our interconnected world,” said Arthur Dallau, CEO of INSPIR8ION. Currently, the DronePort Rotterdam initiative is working towards two projects: Autonomous Asset Integrity Management (AAIM), and the integration of U-Space and UTM Systems in Rotterdam city, port, and airport.

The AAIM project focuses on an advanced approach to ensure the health and functionality of critical assets and infrastructure. Using autonomous drones equipped with cutting-edge sensors and AI-driven analysis tools, AAIM can perform regular inspections and maintenance checks without human intervention. This is beneficial for inspecting hard-to-reach or hazardous locations, such as offshore platforms, high-rise structures, or underground pipelines, to detect anomalies, and predict potential failures, while ensuring the longevity and safety of assets.

DronePort Rotterdam's second project aims to establish a clear governance model for managing the increasing autonomous and uncrewed asset traffic in the region. The goal is to ensure safe and efficient operations, minimizing potential conflicts with other airspace users and ground-based activities.

Inspecting a train station’s roof without disrupting train services

Looking to inspect the roof of a 1900s train station, NS Stations, a Dutch company that owns and manages over 400 train stations in the Netherlands, needed to find a solution to provide safe access without scaffolding to avoid disrupting rail activity. Having worked in the past with Vortex Hardware & Maintenance BV, a drone and robotics specialist and Flyability partner, NS Stations knew Flyability’s Elios drone would be a great fit for this project.

The space between the metal weight-bearing structures and the overall roof needed to be carefully analyzed while trains were still operating, but European rules forbid the use of drones near people and/or crowds. For that reason, NS Stations chose to perform the drone flights during the night when there would be fewer trains as well as fewer people.

Together with ProRail, a government organization responsible for the maintenance and extension of the national railway network infrastructure, and NS Stations, Vortex Hardware used an Elios 3 equipped with a lidar scanner to: carefully measure the space between the roof, cables, and all metal beams; check areas that station managers were particularly concerned with; and conduct a general review. The drone’s built-in lighting system, measuring 16,000 lumens, made visibility clear even though the flights took place at night.

“The use of the Elios 3 for the inspection of roofs above train tracks and platforms is a great alternative to regular visual inspections,” ProRail said. “The use of drones ensures that we are more flexible, because, for example, it is not necessary to build scaffolding structures before we can do the actual visual inspection. This saves a lot of time, but also a lot of inconvenience for travelers and downtime for train traffic. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to inspect assets in a much more targeted manner.” 

Preventing traffic jams with drones

Consisting mostly of 2×2 lanes, the road ring of Leeuwarden, Netherlands, also used to contain a particular 1x1 section with a narrow bridge, several roundabouts, and crossings with thousands of cyclists every day that suffered from constant traffic jam problems. Concerned about the traffic flow in the city beltway and hoping to get it resolved by 2030, Leeuwarden’s city council reached out to Roelofs to conduct a traffic study of the city ring and its problematic areas.

Instead of adopting manual counting processes or static cameras to collect the required data, Roelofs pinpointed four crucial areas of interest - a bridge, two roundabouts, and a central section – to perform a large-scale aerial analysis using 8 recording drones—2 drones per area due to battery life concerns. By gathering data during morning and evening rush hours along the 1.2km road, the company then merged it using DataFromSky’s TrafficSurvey to generate accurate trajectory data from cars and cyclists. Additionally, Roelofs used the data to analyze the traffic density during different daytimes and to create an O/D matrix of the area.

The collected data allowed the city council to identify traffic flow bottlenecks and revealed other potential issues, such as crossing with cyclists, which were not recognized before. As a result, the city council advanced with rebuilding plans for the beltway, adding new road lanes in the problematic section, and addressing the issues with the bridge and the cyclist crossing to improve the driving experience and prevent delays during rush hours.

Avoiding paint-peeling issues on aircraft

Mainblades, a Dutch robotics company founded in 2017, is known for developing navigation and computer vision technologies for automated visual inspections of aircraft with drones. The company claims that using drones for lightning strikes and general visual inspections can save around €5.4M and €1.5M per year, respectively.

Together with KLM, Mainblades is changing aviation maintenance at Schiphol, Amsterdam, using AI-powered inspection drones to address paint-peeling issues. While paint-peeling may look like an esthetic issue, it’s more likely to be evidence of substantial degradation of the composite fiberglass ply covering the aircraft body that results from UV radiation exposure.

The regular, more common approach to this kind of issue is to perform visual inspections of the aircraft wings, ensuring that the patches of peeled-off paint are covered with aviation-grade speed tape and that the applied amount is correct. However, this can be quite costly due to downtime requirements and the amount of specialized personnel needed to apply and visually estimate the amount of applied tape.

The solution developed by Mainblades and KLM uses a drone and AI to easily and automatically navigate the hangar, take pictures of an aircraft’s damaged areas, and generate data using Mainblades’ proprietary damage detection technology. In the validation procedure carried out internally at KLM, the company concluded that a drone inspection is 8.5 times more accurate, and six times faster (3 hours vs 30 minutes) than a manual inspection.