How can drones be used in oil and gas applications

Jon Lawson

The past few years have seen a flurry of innovation regarding drones and their application across many different industries. Technological advances coupled with less prohibitive legislation mean that many sectors are now starting to reap the various rewards of these unmanned aerial vehicles. The oil & gas industry is an obvious fit for many different inspection, exploration and operational tasks. From pipeline inspection and monitoring through to ensuring the safety of workers on oil rigs, drones are becoming an increasingly popular tool and are leading to results such as savings in both operational costs and in terms of needing fewer personnel. Drones are also now being deployed to replace some previous technologies that were once regarded as the state-of-the-art, such as light aircraft or helicopters; cost savings there are obvious, as well as the advantage of fewer weather-related issues too.

Take to the skies

In December 2017, Canadian firm SkyX announced a landmark achievement when its drone completed a 100km flight for the oil & gas market. The data collection flight was one of the longest journeys in its class.

Taking place in Mexico, the firm successfully flew its SkyOne unmanned aerial system (UAS) on an autonomous data mission over more than 100km of gas pipeline. The robotic flight was programmed and monitored remotely from the company’s Greater Toronto Area SkyCenter mission control, with a support crew of engineers on the ground in Mexico.

Using high-resolution imagery, the longest of multiple flights identified more than 200 potentially significant anomalies along the remote pipeline, ranging from unauthorised buildings and cultivation, through to a fissure possibly caused by seismic activity.

“This mission was groundbreaking,” says SkyX Founder and CEO Didi Horn. “We have proven our solution in a rugged environment that presented network communications challenges. Our Mexican partner was stunned not only by our results, but by the speed and accuracy with which we delivered them.”

The flights mark a milestone for several reasons. Chief among them is the point that a 100+km flight gathered data that would have taken a person well over a week, in a little more than an hour. The mission also identified more than 200 geo-referenced anomalies that the customer was unaware existed, pinpointing precise coordinates for rapid investigation and remediation

“More than US$38 billion is spent annually monitoring oil and gas pipelines using less efficient means, which often identify problems only long after they’ve occurred. SkyX brings an unprecedented value proposition to this global issue,” says Horn.

The SkyX system consists of an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane, the SkyCenter control room (which allows for real-time and secure mission monitoring from remote locations), and the company’s proprietary SkyBoxes, which allow SkyOne to recharge and continue long-range missions without having to ‘Return to Home’ (a factor that limits many other drones).

Flying away

Also proving popular for inspection-related tasks in the oil & gas sector is Flyability’s Elios solution – which its maker describes as the “world’s first collision-tolerant UAV”. Elios has been put to work in inspecting oil & gas storage tanks, providing operators with a safer, faster inspection method and a greater quality of data than they had been able to gather using rope access, scaffolding or visual inspection from the ground with binoculars.

Elios is also being used to inspect pressure vessels and is proving extremely popular here as it has none of the risks of injury that occur when human workers conduct inspections.

Although practical robotic solutions exist for pressure vessel inspection, most are limited by their locomotive capabilities when faced with obstacles or different environments. Elios is designed to reflect off obstacles with an external rotating cage; the same mechanism protects any human operators from harm.

To ensure downtime is reduced during inspections, Elios can be deployed in under a minute and the batteries exchanged in under 30 seconds. Inspection personnel can control the drone remotely outside the structure, avoiding the risk of injury, reducing overall asset downtime.

2017 saw the Elios drone put to another innovative use too. The organisation RIMS (Robotica in Maintenance Strategies) launched an inspection service of enclosed spaces to the maritime and offshore industry that relied on Elios.

One of the major focus of RIMS was to realise safe inspections of enclosed spaces. During market research Flyability gave a presentation on the Elios solution. RIMS was shown that it is a drone with a cage, and therefore perfectly suitable to enter enclosed spaces and inspect the areas.

With the partners Rotterdam Offshore Group, Rolldock and Flyability, under supervision of Class, RIMS carried out a test on board of the Rolldock Sky to check whether the controls and data transfer would be fine in a ballast tank and duct keel. These tests were successful.

Like a hawk

Founded in 2008 by oil & gas engineers, Cyberhawk conducts close visual and thermal inspections and surveys of high, live and difficult to reach structures at onshore and offshore oil & gas and COMAH installations using UAVs.

The firm has completed over 200 close visual and thermal flare inspections and surveys. It can inspect a flare while it is live and online, avoiding the requirement to shutdown, which it says means that typical savings are millions of dollars per inspection. Inspections can include the condition of the flare tips, pilot ignition systems, radiation shield, flare supporting structure, pipework, gantries and handrails.

Cyberhawk’s pilots can actually fly under the deck of an offshore fixed or floating installation. From there, its team can zoom in on areas of interest and eradicate the need for large scaffolding, rope access work scopes, over side work and standby vessels. The underdeck of an offshore platform can be inspected in a fraction of the time of traditional access methods.

A recent inspection of an underdeck required three days for Cyberhawk’s two-man team; it would have a 14-week project for a six-man scaffolding team.

In another real-world case study, the company recently completed an offshore project for assets previously owned by BP in the Gulf of Mexico. The work involved the close visual inspection of a 10-year-old flare stack while live and operational, on one of the largest spar platforms in the world.

An experienced team of two from Cyberhawk, including a flare inspection engineer and oil & gas qualified inspection pilot, was mobilised to undertake the work and spent two days offshore. However, the actual inspection took only four hours – proving how fast and effective UAV inspections can be. The team managed to complete the project under extreme wind conditions, flying in 25 knot winds.

Alternative methods such as rope access or scaffolding would have taken weeks to complete, required a shutdown of the facility and would have presented significant dangers to personnel, such as working at height. In this case, it would also have been extremely dangerous to inspect this asset using rope access as the UAV captured data showed that the platform around the flare and the handrails were in very poor condition. Alternatively, a helicopter inspection would have been three to four times more expensive.

The detailed inspection report showed that the flare was in good condition, despite being in use for over 10 years. This helped the client to understand the status of deterioration, and avoid unnecessary maintenance costs.

In another example, Intel and Cyberhawk worked together on a project to inspect a gas terminal in St Fergus, Scotland. Inspection with the Intel Falcon 8+ system, instead of conventional methods, reduced employee risk, increased speed and accuracy, and saved US$1 million to US$5 million per day in potential production loss during the mission.

Traditional inspections of this scale require facility shutdowns, which could take days to weeks to bring the plant offline and make accessible for workers, who rely on harnesses and cable equipment to hang mid-air while manually collecting information on the structure. “In the last 20 years that I’ve worked in the inspection industry, drones are the biggest single change we’ve seen to-date,” comments Chris Fleming, Cyberhawk CEO.

“Flying in Scotland, the devices have to withstand strong winds,” Fleming explains. “The Intel Falcon is perfect for that because it has the highest wind tolerance and the best power-to-weight ratio of any platform on the market.”

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone deployed for this mission captured 1,100 images, translating to 12GB of data, over the span of one to two days. This would have typically taken a three-man team three days to achieve. These analytics can be used for asset maintenance including pre-maintenance inspection, repair work, resource planning, maintenance prioritisation and more.

“The way we conduct inspections is changing,” says Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager within Intel’s New Technology Group. “Drones make inspection workflows faster, cheaper and safer. The technology is mature enough to be adopted into the workflows of our customers.”

Automating activities

Airobotics is another company that’s making waves in the oil & gas market with its automated drone solution, which is being used for both on- and offshore inspection and maintenance activities. The automated platform provides high quality aerial data for all inspection and maintenance requirements, in a safer, more efficient manner, without causing operational downtime.

This consistently available aerial perspective of operations offers a number of benefits. Firstly, when it comes to emergency response, the immediate aerial information of leaks and spills enables a rapid response to any emergencies.

Routine system inspections to ensure consistent operational integrity are also an advantage, particularly with regard to access in hard-to-reach areas. Airobotics is also keen to point out that its platform enables “situational awareness beyond the oil rig”.

Its dynamic drone solution offers inspectors a professional tool for viewing difficult-to-access areas, giving them a safer, more cost-efficient way of gaining greater insight into operation-critical processes. By creating a
completely automatic platform, the drone is autonomously deployed and landed, with pre-defined missions and applications, to collect aerial data that the system analyses, providing a clear picture of difficult-to-access machinery.

The company has set out to create a more efficient, cost-effective and safe inspection process that gives operators better, closer monitoring and control while they continue their business operations as usual. Given that industrial inspections tend to involve the use of ladders, ropes and rigs to scale large machinery and towers, oversee processes and locate bottlenecks, it’s easy to see why the sector is embracing Airobotics’ far simpler solution

The Airobotics technology is eliminating the logistics involved in drone operations to provide reliable, on-demand aerial data, premium processing and analytics capabilities, while simplifying inspection processes and enabling work to be carried out as required. Automated gas inspection can be a considerable safety addition to industrial facilities such as refineries.

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