When the logic of the solution can be understood by everyone, mastering the technology can provide an unbeatable advantage. This is exactly what a drone-builder, inspection specialist and maintenance manager from Bruinisse, Zeeland, are currently showing. Everyone can understand that a drone can check the inside of a tank much more easily and quickly than a person on scaffoldings dozens of metres high. But only when you have fully understood how to control such a flying device with millimetre precision within a ‘Faraday cage’ – where a compass doesn’t work and no GPS signal permeates – and can also perform a thickness measurement at a tenth of a millimetre… then you can really make a difference. And that’s it: the solution devised in Bruinisse is now going around the world under the name of Terra Inspectioneering.
With hindsight, it always seems logical, but in 2016, when Ron van Seeters, Marien van den Hoek and Steven Verver joined forces to set up RoNik Inspectioneering, this extremely fast growth was far from guaranteed. After all, there were many more initiatives that tried to take advantage of the growing market for inspection drones. We spoke to co-founder Ron van Seeters.
What made you decide to found RoNik in 2016?
Marien and I, each from our own company, had already carried out a number of projects on the inspection of large storage tanks the year before, and both we and our clients liked that very much. However, we also knew that our joint inspection expertise would only really become effective if we also involved an experienced drone builder. So when Steven, who was a specialist in the world of Artificial Intelligence, wanted to join us, we were completely ready. In May 2016, we founded RoNik Inspectioneering, which focused on the process industry and specialised tank storage companies. Think of the names you know from the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam; large oil companies, but also DSM and Akzo for example.
How did you stand out from the competition?
We felt that the use of drones would only become more accessible, both in private and in business terms. So we knew we would have to specialise. Based on our own background, but also from a market perspective, we opted for integrity inspections in enclosed spaces. For example, our drones measure the thickness of metal and do so in exactly the same way as a human being would do, based on exactly the same criteria. Our advantage is that we operate at places that are difficult for a human being to reach or only at high costs and risks. In those gigantic oil storage tanks, for example, where you would normally spend days building up the necessary scaffolding for an inspection. Or in dark, dirty, high or very small enclosed spaces, where you don’t really want to have people at all. In fact, more and more companies are simply prohibiting this.
Is flying a drone in such a tank different from flying outside?
Yes, there are many differences. To start with, there are other regulations. Those who fly professionally outside are subject to many laws and regulations, such as the Air and Traffic Act. Our eureka-moment was the realization that we could make a difference by flying inside. But with that, we also saw some new challenges: GPS does not work in such a steel storage tank, nor does a compass. We called in NASA and everything to finally determine the right communication protocol. I dare to say that this has now given us a head start of years. Everyone now knows us as the specialist in the field of inspections in hard-to-reach places. Our ultrasonic measurements meet all the technical standards that apply in the process industry and we achieve a reliability of 0.2 mm. For the work we do – such as determining the thickness of metal beams at the top of a storage tank – this is unprecedented.
By the way, we only fly with real pilots who meet the highest quality standards. How good are they? Just look at the award one of our pilots recently won for his drone camera work.
How did the growth of your start-up go?
Well, of course, it hasn’t been a straight line up. For example, try getting money from a bank for a project like ours. In the end, we had to go abroad for insurance. In the beginning, we had some technical setbacks, but that didn’t undermine our confidence. The decision to switch from visual inspections to ultrasound was particularly important. But the real game-changer might have been our solution to get the drones to stick themselves to the ceiling. That was and is really unique. Crawling up against the wall was already possible, as well as hanging under a ceiling. But flying to a beam in the ridge of a tank and then clamping yourself on this beam is another story. We have been able to do this – I remember it very precisely – since 28 December 2018. Two and a half years after our start. Yes, you need a long time, but then you can also achieve something: just look at the awards we have won for this. At Drone Hero Europe, we won the first prize as the most innovative company in April and then we became number 8 in the Chamber of Commerce top 100, as the only drone company on the list. And recently we won a second prize at Emergo Zeeland. We’re all very proud of that.”
What is the future of RoNik Inspectioneering?
Well, actually you should say: for Terra Inspectioneering because that’s what we’re called from now on. Our successes have not gone unnoticed. The Japanese Terra Drone Corporation, a world leader in industrial drone inspection, has taken an interest in our company. This has enabled us to grow from a start-up to a global player in one fell swoop. We were already active in several other countries, but through Terra this has grown to more than 25. So the future looks good for us and not just for ourself. Safety is becoming an increasingly important issue and we can greatly reduce the costs for storage tank operators. All in all, this means that we can continue to double our turnover in the coming years. In 2016, we started with a turnover of 65,000 euros; I expect one and a half million for this year, and by 2020, we should be able to exceed 3 million euros. Both the sales of drones and the supply of software and service contribute to this.