The Fuse

Drones Could Become Commonplace in the Oil Industry

by Nick Cunningham | July 23, 2015

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones,” have been used to drop missiles on military targets for years, but they are rapidly expanding into commercial markets, including the oil industry.

There are now hundreds of companies that have received approval from the federal government to operate drones for commercial purposes. Globally, drones have already proliferated into numerous disparate applications such as surveying farm crops, delivering vaccinations, monitoring whaling ships, and detecting deforestation patterns. Even the online retailer Amazon is intent on pioneering home delivery with drones.

Now there are even “drone services,” which individuals or businesses can contract for the use of a drone without having to actually own one. If someone needs aerial imagery of their farm, business, or neighborhood, there are drone pilots that can do the work them. It’s like the car service Uber, but for drones.

Now there are even “drone services, which individuals or businesses can contract for the use of a drone without having to actually own one. If someone needs aerial imagery of their farm, business, or neighborhood, there are drone pilots that can do the work for them. It’s like the car service Uber, but for drones.

Drones for oil

The potential business opportunities with drones have not been lost on the oil and gas industry. Drones offer all sorts of applications that the industry can use. They can allow oil and gas companies to monitor pipelines, roads, storage tanks, buildings, bridges, and power lines, and also provide a critical role in response to oil spills.

ConocoPhillips conducted the first drone flight in commercial airspace, off the coast of Alaska in 2013. The oil major used the ScanEagle, a drone built by Boeing subsidiary Insitu. Although ConocoPhillips shelved its exploration plans in the Arctic, it surveyed sections of the Chukchi Sea with this drone.

BP, on the other hand, has more ambitious plans with drones. The British oil giant received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2014 to deploy drones to monitor its pipeline network in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the first time the federal government gave a green light to the use of drones over land in the U.S. BP is using a drone called the Puma AE, a radio-controlled fixed-wing vehicle with a seven-foot wingspan that was built by California-based AeroVironment.

Drones can allow oil and gas companies to monitor pipelines, roads, storage tanks, buildings, bridges, and power lines, and also provide a critical role in response to oil spills.

In Alaska, BP is using the Puma to monitor its extensive pipeline network to check for damage while also staying on top of weather-related disruptions such as icy conditions and floods. The drone comes equipped with LiDAR (light detection and ranging), which uses laser pulses to collect high-resolution topographical data on the ground below.

BP is also looking at using multi-rotor drones, which are similar to little helicopters. They would be used in surveying and data collection for vertical structures such as flare stacks, power lines, cooling towers, offshore rigs, and other tall buildings or pieces of equipment. In the UK, BP used a drone to survey a cooling tower. That allowed the company to collect data without having to build scaffolding for manual assessment by a work crew.

Royal Dutch Shell is also getting into the mix. Oregon-based VDOS Global LLC won approval from the FAA in late 2014 to use drones to inspect Shell’s flare stacks in the Gulf of Mexico. VDOS says that it anticipates “significant demand” for its services as a result of more than 3,500 potential inspection sites in the Gulf of Mexico alone. One key advantage of drones for these inspections: They can detect corrosion or other problems with equipment while not interrupting operations. Data can also be interpreted immediately.

Drones set to take off

The use of drones is still relatively new, since there has not been an overarching regulatory framework for the aerial vehicles set up yet in the U.S. Having been more or less the exclusive purview of the military, drones have only in the last few years been the subject of commercial enterprises, which have pressed the federal government to allow drones for civilian use.

Earlier this year, the FAA decided to dramatically loosen federal limits on drone use. Up until then, any company seeking to use drones had to obtain a special exemption from the FAA, since drone regulations were not complete. Known as a “Section 333” waiver, the exemptions were restrictive, and companies had to spell out in detail how they intended to use the drone. But in March, the FAA put in place an interim policy that grants Section 333 waiver holders free use of drones below 200 feet of elevation. The move was a nod to calls to allow much greater use of drones for commercial purposes.

Finalization of proposed regulations will likely take place in 2016, and the loosened guidance put forth by the FAA suggests that drone use could soon become widespread.

Implications for the oil and gas industry

By definition, drones are unmanned. This set-up allows for them to be small and lightweight, making individual flights much cheaper than manned flyovers. In Alaska, for example, BP’s Prudhoe Bay complex depends on gravel roads, which can shift, buckle, or wash out depending on the weather, so drones can much more easily monitor road conditions and identify where repairs are needed.

In any remote location, drones could offer an easier, safer, and cheaper way of environmental monitoring. Instead of sending out a crew to inspect a pipeline in a desert, on a mountain top, or in harsh conditions, oil companies will likely increasingly turn to drones.

Based on early results, the industry is excited. After seeing one of the first 3-D models produced by a drone in Prudhoe Bay, BP officials were impressed. “That’s more data in 45 minutes than we’ve gotten in the last 30 years,” Curtis Smith, a technology director with BP, said in a 2014 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It’s revolutionary.”

BP says that inspecting a three-kilometer section of a pipeline takes only 30 minutes with a drone, as opposed to five to seven days with a survey crew. Moreover, with over 2,000 kilometers of pipeline to keep track of in Prudhoe Bay alone, the data collection and cost savings could be huge.

In fact, in any remote location, drones could offer an easier, safer, and cheaper way of environmental monitoring. Instead of sending out a crew to inspect a pipeline in a desert, on a mountain top, or in harsh conditions, oil companies will likely increasingly turn to drones.