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An unmanned revolution in the oil and gas, energy and petrochemical industries

Author : David Willems, UMS Skeldar

02 February 2021

The oil and gas industry is highly complex: asset management, environmental compliance and safety must all be addressed and guaranteed. Many organisations have invested heavily in deploying large oil pipeline infrastructure across an expansive geographic network, spanning countries and continents. Such infrastructure must be routinely inspected to ensure structural integrity and to monitor for potential trespassers.

Image: UMS Skeldar
Image: UMS Skeldar

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Traditionally, inspections have been completed by deploying teams of personnel, though these types of examinations entail high risk situations and long periods of time in the field for the crews. Manned operations are also very expensive, with estimates suggesting aerial inspection of pipelines using manned helicopters costs approximately $3,000 per hour.

Research has revealed that the oil and gas industry is one of the top four sectors with the greatest potential for drone integration (after construction, agriculture and insurance). This is a result of three main benefits that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer over manned operations: reduced costs, improved safety and enhanced communication. Using UAVs for pipeline inspection is estimated to be worth $41 million globally, and as much as $1.1 billion for offshore rigs and refineries.

Improving crew safety

For manned crews, inspecting and maintaining oil pipelines and platforms is a perilous task: many are remote and in extremely harsh environments. For example, offshore rigs require inspectors to climb ladders, use dangerous machinery and work close to harmful chemicals. Rig inspections carried out by rope-access technicians can take up to eight weeks and involve shutting down production which poses a significant financial risk.

Many new UAVs fly using two-stroke heavy fuel engines – a crucial safety feature in maritime settings. Heavy fuel engines are advancing platform endurance to new heights, with some platforms capable of 5 hours in the air before any need for overhaul. By capitalising on these endurance improvements, deploying UAVs in oil and gas operations means it is possible to access the challenging environments with relative ease but without exposing crews to the associated hazards. This removes risk to employee safety and consequently reduces medical expenses and lost work hours due to injury.

Payload applications

Image: UMS Skeldar
Image: UMS Skeldar

Many advanced UAVs operate with a range of payloads including Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) and newly developed Optical Radar solutions.

EO/IR gimbals provide advanced wide-area situational awareness and intelligence gathering through identification, categorisation and geolocation of target objects. It provides real-time, high-definition video to decision makers for uninterrupted surveillance both by day and night.

Optical Radar sensors, meanwhile, is an airborne persistent wide area maritime search system that autonomously detects objects on the ocean surface, providing high-quality images of items that other search methods often miss. Oil and gas pipeline operators have significant distances to monitor 24/7, both on land and at sea, making UAVs with Optical Radar payloads an extremely attractive proposition.

Surveillance and data

Alongside scheduled inspections, protecting critical oil and gas infrastructure requires ongoing surveillance and remote monitoring to provide consistent tracking data. The location of oil and gas networks presents not only a dangerous work environment, but also a challenge in gathering and sharing such data. Having manned crews run inspections and repairs means a delay between data recording and analysis, whilst fatigued personnel pose a risk of missing potential hazards in the field.

UAVs provide a cost-effective and safe alternative by allowing the data obtained – including visual images and 3D maps – to be shared via the cloud in real-time to crews in another location, totally separate from the inspection itself. Not only do UAVs gather information more efficiently than humans, but the digital data also enables operatives to make better decisions with greater accuracy.

Research comparing the data obtained by manned vs unmanned operations on the same infrastructure found that results from the manual inspection mirrored the results of the UAV analysis with 99% accuracy, though the former took two days for each site compared to two hours with a drone. Once a potential hazard has been identified, it can be addressed in a far shorter time than via the manned alternative, helping to identify issues earlier and reduce downtime.

Image: UMS Skeldar
Image: UMS Skeldar

Through enabling quicker repairs and the opportunity to forecast any maintenance issues, UAVs are improving the efficiency of inspection operations – a vital gain for organisations in charge of safeguarding critical infrastructure such as offshore oil fields and cross-border pipelines. As a result, UAV deployment is increasingly entering organisations’ mindset as they look towards cost-effective, robust solutions.

Electricity networks and nuclear inspections

Beyond oil and gas infrastructure, many other expansive industrial networks exist such as electricity powerlines. UAVs have the potential to revolutionise operations in this sector also. In the UK, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) is monitoring its network with drones – a grid that incorporates more than 1,500 towers and 64,200km of overhead powerlines across the four regions of its distribution area. Traditionally, engineers would be required to physically climb towers to assess their condition and walk beneath loose or frayed powerlines. By deploying UAVs instead, the risk to crew members is reduced.

There are also fascinating UAV applications seen in the chemical sector. For example, in November 2020 inspection firm Flyability revealed how it partnered with DroneUA to conduct a mission at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine to determine whether nuclear waste was present in one of the plant’s decommissioned reactors – Reactor Five.

More than 30 years after the nuclear disaster at the site, the Chernobyl decommissioning team enlisted Flyability to deploy their Elios 2 drone – marking the first time a Flyability drone was involved in nuclear plant decommissioning efforts.

Accessing the part of the reactor where nuclear waste might have been stored was an impossible task for a manned crew. To conduct the operation, Flyability pilots stood in the middle of the reactor in a pit that was approximately 82 feet deep. Using the Elios 2, pilots were able to fly into Reactor Five and collect sufficient visual data to determine that the pools were empty and there was no nuclear waste anywhere inside.

Future forecasts

David Willems, UMS Skeldar
David Willems, UMS Skeldar

Oil and gas organisations are beginning to deploy UAVs as they move towards non-conventional resources and more challenging environments. This is due to the requirement to ensure round the clock vigilance – a priority in any strategic asset protection plan.

As other industrial applications also come to the fore, such as in powerline inspection and nuclear plant decommissioning, it is inevitable that we will see continued growth of UAVs in the energy sector. Though market forecasts attempt to place precise figures on the value of drones, their ability to reduce risk to manned crews, shrink costs and enable more efficient data analysis places their true worth beyond any decimal point.

About the author:

David Willems, VP Business Development and Strategy at UMS SKELDAR, has spent 20 years of his professional career working in the aviation Industry. He has developed skills working both with civilian and military applications and is an entrepreneur that has directly created or contributed to the creation of several businesses offering aviation-related operational and consulting services. He has been involved in the unmanned industry for almost a decade and offers continued expertise in his role at UMS SKELDAR.


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