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BP - Using drones to monitor safety

12 May 2015

Until recently, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – was mainly associated with the military. These days, however, they are increasingly being used for civilian and commercial purposes. BP is now using unmanned aerial vehicles at its Prudhoe Bay operations in Alaska, to help carry out safety checks in difficult terrain and temperatures. Their success here and elsewhere within the group’s worldwide operations makes the expansio

An aerial view of the Lisburne Production Center in Prudhoe Bay - Image: BP
An aerial view of the Lisburne Production Center in Prudhoe Bay - Image: BP

BP has been testing UAVs for its own purposes since 2006, although widespread commercial use was previously limited by cost, regulation and privacy issues. That all changed last year, when the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved BP and California-based manufacturer AeroVironment’s request to fly the Puma AE UAV at BP’s Prudhoe Bay oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope. This was the first time the FAA has authorised the commercial operation of a UAV over land in the US.

Not all UAVs are the same. The Puma, for example, is a radio-controlled, fixed-wing vehicle around 1.8 metres (six feet) long with a two-metre wingspan. Made of ultra-light Kevlar, it weighs less than seven kilograms. Other fixed-wing UAVs are ‘autonomous’, which means their route, speed and height are all pre-programmed ahead of flight.

Both versions can fly for around three-and-a-half hours and remain stable in winds of up to 50 kilometres an hour. This makes them ideal for checking pipelines and mapping land outcrops for exploration purposes.

This gives extra capacity to monitor pipelines and provides new and more efficient ways to inspect infrastructure, such as flare stacks, tanks, bridges and power lines. The 1.8m-long drones also allow 3D mapping of the drilling pads and roads. Testing is underway to apply the technology in spill response and environmental monitoring.

Introduced in 2014, the Pumas are especially helpful in remote and challenging environments, such as Alaska, where the climate and terrain presents significant barriers to standard safety monitoring techniques. Over the 100,000-hectare area of Prudhoe Bay, ice break-ups and floods continuously alter the landscape, making monitoring methods used elsewhere in the world dangerous, expensive and time-consuming.

Operators control the Puma AE manually or use GPS - Image: BP/Tobotron
Operators control the Puma AE manually or use GPS - Image: BP/Tobotron

The drones can check a 3km section of pipeline in 30 minutes compared to the five to seven days it would take a survey crew to cover the same distance. They can also produce information for analysis in under an hour, can fly for around three-and-a-half hours, and – even though they are made from ultra-light material and weigh approximately 7kg – are designed to remain stable in winds of up to 50km an hour.

Sensors scan BP’s network of pipelines to identify areas where frost has damaged steel supports, and by catching this movement early on, the company can make repairs that help to prevent pipeline damage and leaks.

UAVs are controlled by mobile ground stations crewed by one person flying the machine and someone else operating the onboard cameras, usually accompanied by subject experts onsite to analyse the pictures and data as they come in.

The machinery is highly sophisticated technology, which is one reason why UAVs are classified as aircraft. But, the real innovation is in the kit they carry. As well as high-resolution photography and video cameras, the fixed-wing versions carry the latest light detection and ranging (LiDAR) equipment, which incorporates remote sensors that use laser pulses to collect 3D images.

The laser scanner transmits up to 400,000 pulses of light per second, recording the time delay between transmission and reception to calculate elevation values. Those values are then integrated with information from the UAV’s global positioning system (GPS) and orientation measurements to produce a ‘point cloud’ – a set of data points – showing the location of crops, forests, roads, railways, airports, bare earth, mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, glaciers, buildings and other urban developments.

BP also uses helicopter UAVs - Image: Shutterstock
BP also uses helicopter UAVs - Image: Shutterstock

Since LiDAR can be reflected from any object the laser pulse strikes, up to five returns are collected per pulse. The multiple returns are recorded and each point is assigned a classification to identify landscape features. The intensity of the reflected energy is also captured and analysed: all of which makes it very useful for high-resolution topographical mapping and 3D surface modelling.

The drones can be flown on auto-pilot as well as on remote-control, which means their route, speed and height can all be pre-programmed ahead of flight. Through a mixture of programmed and remote-controlled journeys, they are now conducting routine surveys of 2,090km of pipelines at Prudhoe Bay, as well as more than 320km of gravel roads, allowing areas that are in need of servicing to be identified and attended to before they present any safety problems.

There are also radio-controlled multi-rotor UAVs – effectively mini-helicopters – that are smaller and have a shorter range. These are perfect for checking vertical structures, such as flare stacks and cooling towers, as well as flat roofs and electrical lines. BP is also investigating their potential use inside vessels and tanks. The beauty of a multi-rotor UAV is that it can collect accurate data from a structure at a distance of seven to nine metres (25-30 feet), without having to shut it down.

Elsewhere, UAVs are helping BP’s exploration team to produce cost-effective 3D models of onshore outcrops in Azerbaijan. At its site in Hull, UK, the unmanned Cyberhawk ‘Octocopter’ has helped to assess the integrity of a 100-metre (330-foot) cooling tower, removing the need for scaffolding and people working at height.

The regulatory environment for using UAVs differs from country to country, determining how and where this technology can be used. But, with costs falling and increasingly sophisticated technology – of both the machines themselves and the sensors and cameras they carry – the future looks very promising for UAV use across BP.

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