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Drone operations in hazardous areas

15 July 2016

A recent report by consultancy group PwC estimates that the use of drones could lead to disruption in $125bn worth of traditional industries. Drones are expected to replace those humans who have previously climbed ladders or dangled from ropes to assess everything from industrial inspection to insurance assessment. Now, a French company is offering ATEX-certified drones for use in potentially explosive environments.

LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone - Image: Xamen Technologies
LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone - Image: Xamen Technologies

The LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone from  Xamen Technologies, a company based in south western France,  is ATEX Zone 2 approved for use where hazardous gas or vapours are present on an occasional basis. It is an octocopter drone with a wingspan of 104cm, 16 m/s max speed and a maximum payload of 2 kg.

It took 18 months collaboration with French Ex design consultancy CentrExpert to upgrade one of the company’s existing drones and make it ATEX compliant. Changes included replacing carbonfibre propellers with wooden ones to reduce static risk, adapting all electrical and electronic systems and making modifications to the wiring.

The machine and its systems are also highly portable and fit in a medium-sized canvas case.

Xamen says it is the first UAV to be ATEX-certified, and is able as a result to carry out close investigations where there is a risk of explosion due to the presence of gas or vapours. The drone can carry cameras and sensors such as gas detectors to areas that were previously off-limits within a plant or rig.

The main advantage of drone operations at these sites is that staff no longer need be exposed to hazardous situations, often at height, bringing significant occupational safety benefits.

Another is the speed with which inspections can be carried out, which will usually reduce the overall cost of the operation by a substantial margin.

The company says the main focus has been on safety, with all aircraft featuring GPS-assisted flight, failsafe return to base and parachute deployment after impact. Training and maintenance are also high priorities to ensure maximum operational security in highly-sensitive locations, with all operators highly experienced UAV operators but also competent to operate in Ex environments.

This should add a new dimension to the use of drones in high hazard industries such as oil and gas and petrochemicals, where drones have revolutionised engineering inspection and assessment over the last few years.

Xamen has undertaken projects for RETIA, Total Group’s decommissioning and environmental rehabilitation subsidiary (see below), and Elengy/ENGIE, formerly GdF Suez. The company also recently carried out a world first, flying a test resupply mission out to a Maersk tanker in the North Sea.

Xamen intends to reinforce its presence in the sector. Following the completion of a fundraising operation last year, the company is working on a drone that would be certified to operate in ATEX Zone 1, where hazardous gas or vapours are present on a regular basis.

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Yannick Charlot. Oil & Gas Site Remediation Manager at RETIA, gives his account of a recent operation using Xamen’s LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone.

“At Total’s Lacq site (in south western France), we needed to empty the contents of a 13,000 litre capacity tank containing products for disposal as waste. These products were in liquid, solid and gas form and could not be removed through the usual valves. We needed to check the upper structure of the tank to ascertain its physical condition for a mechanical intervention to sample its contents.

"We thought that inspection with a drone would best meet our needs, as we did not want to send technicians onto the roof of the tank if we could avoid it because of the possible presence of vapours, which would have required our technicians to wear respiratory protective equipment.

"The actual inspection was carried out in just two hours. In total, with the time required for risk assessment and emergency procedure planning, the operation took a single day.

"If we had had to carry out an inspection the classic way, it would have required a platform or scaffolding and would have taken several days. I estimate the cost of the drone operation to be around 40% of the cost of an intervention carried out using classic methods.

"We had already used drones to inspect structures such as chimneys but this was the first time we used an ATEX-certified machine, and we would definitely consider using one again if similar circumstances arose in future.”


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