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Srikanth Subba Rao
"With this innovative usage of drones in the O&G sector, it is surely going to reach new levels of safety and efficiency"

Srikanth Subba Rao
Research Analyst, Envecologic

Why Is The Oil & Gas Industry Flying Drones?

By Srikanth Subba Rao , Research Analyst, Envecologic

Published in September Edition
Research into the possible use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) had started about a decade ago. However, it was only in 2014 that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sanctioned a British Petroleum owned, radio-controlled drone to help with operations at the Prudhoe Bay oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope. Later in 2017, when the hurricane Harvey had struck Houston, 10 oil refineries had been closed down in anticipation of pipeline leaks. However, out of USA’s total refining capacity these refineries comprised about 16.6%. Amidst the unprecedented damages to public and private property, this loss to the national petroleum grid could have resulted in a crippling fuel crisis too. Thankfully, the US Department of Energy set out to find the truth with drones and fortunately found that there were no such leakages to justify the shutdown. This is just one of the instances when drones had saved the day in the absence of human inspection.

The Source Of The Drone Advantage
The Oil & Gas (O&G) industry has an infrastructure necessitating regular maintenance and monitoring to shun accidents, fires and leakages that could lead to environmental hazards. A lot of effort and preventive measures are need for the exploration, refining, and distribution of oil and gas products and most of these measures are traditionally manual, expensive and risky. Yet, operational costs must be sustained within conventional levels due to the influence of oil prices on economies. With crude prices falling below $40 per barrel, oil companies are looking for further optimization of the engineering costs which is only up to 3%. Drones or UAVs, not only make inspections safer by subtracting the human involvement, but they also digitize the process for inspection data to be tracked and analyzed more efficiently in real-time. Inspection drones can record visual or thermal images of flare stacks, underdecks, cooling towers and chimneys, and other spaces cramped or risky for humans and that too without a facility shutdown. Inspection drones can even plan their own flight paths, self-navigate to bypass obstacles, and automatically find and flag information of interest.

Drones In Upstream
In upstream, drones are mostly used for greenfield or brownfield site inspections for generating a 3D map of the rig and the surrounding topography which is mostly absent in the case of old rigs functional for more than four to five decades. However, in upstream the primary usage of drones is in surveying massive areas of land or even the sea for prospective pockets of oil & gas presence which is hugely expensive, tedious and time consuming if done manually. With concerns of elevation, unpredictable & life-threating weather conditions or radiation, some areas might be extremely hard to access on vehicles or prove to be politically hostile for the surveyor’s personal safety; while a drone flying hundreds of meters above land or water with laser, thermal or ultrasound sensors are perfectly poised to stream the live feed to operators sitting at the oil company’s regional engineering centers. For offshore rigs, drones may also monitor the complete operational build during its various phases of construction while serving the dual purpose of flying in critical equipment in times of need. Even various anomalous process conditions during production such as leaks are more efficiently identified through infrared footage rather than the most trained human eyes of the inspection personnel.

Drones In Midstream
Petrochemical pipelines extend through thousands of kilometers with some cutting through the remotest locations almost inaccessible to humans, except by air. But even these pipelines need regular maintenance and monitoring for leak detection. A comprehensive check of a three-kilometer long of pipeline infrastructure needed up to a week of human labor which can be done in thirty minutes by a drone. Capturing ground leak indicators such as dead or discolored vegetation, pooling of liquid on the ground, dirt or debris blowing up from the ground or unusual fog and clouding and hostile damages by external sources to the pipeline system are easily done from a perfect aerial view, allowing the operator to alleviate a potential crisis preemptively. With infrared and thermal imaging, drones can detect heat loss and identify any potential pipeline leaks, where hotspots might indicate structural flaws.

Drones In Downstream
Health, safety and environment (HSE) is one the primary concerns in the O&G sector as refineries and the people working inside them and the adjacent flora & fauna are at a constant risk from petrochemical hazards. For instance, the flare stack inspection at the rig is a highly specialized job that needs trained and insured personnel at the peak of their health. Additionally, the rig has to stop functioning for inspection which costs thousands of dollars lost every hour along with the cost for the scaffolding to climb and inspect the metal structure, its joints, welds, valves and many more intricacies. With drones inspecting these tall stacks standing 50 meters above the ground, the entire engineering of these stacks could do without scaffoldings and that could make them even higher (above 100 or 200m) for the polluting gases like Nitrous oxide to be released much higher than levels at which it is currently released. This would reduce the threat of air pollution for the nearby areas too, along with millions of dollars saved in not shutting down the plant for inspection and also not risk the human inspection personnel.

The Future Of Drones In O&G
In a recent report, Goldman Sachs had estimated that the market size for pipeline inspection by means of drones would be globally valued at $41 million. Moreover, the same report also states that the market worth for offshore rig and refinery inspections by utilizing drones would reach $1.1 billion.

Apart from the aforementioned uses, the O&G industry is combining the deployment of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, IoT, Data analytics, and other hardware and software tools to further optimize costs, reduce risks while also maximizing productivity. Even if some O&G companies lack the adequate expertise or human resources to leverage drones, they can easily outsource such tasks to any of the several Engineering Service providers who are always on the lookout to diversify their operational technology with leading edge technologies. With this innovative usage of drones in the O&G sector, it is surely going to reach new levels of safety and efficiency as they bring in more safety and saves human lives in many of the occasion by performing those hazardous activities where humans have to get exposed. Drones also bring reliability and repeatability in activities they perform for eliminating human error and all the data and information they collect will be accurate.

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