UAVs to make a mark on the oil and gas industry

Louise Davis

The oil and gas industry is highly complex: asset management, environmental compliance and safety must all be addressed and guaranteed. For example, many organisations have invested heavily in deploying large oil pipeline infrastructure across an expansive geographic network, spanning countries and continents. This creates a need for activities such as oil and gas exploration, inspection and monitoring of pipelines. Pipelines must be routinely inspected to not only ensure structural integrity for continuing safe operations but also to monitor for intruders and other potential trespassers.

The same can be said for oilfields out at sea. Traditionally, inspections have been completed by deploying teams of personnel. However, these types of examinations often entail high-risk situations and very lengthy journeys, requiring each team member to spend a long time in the field. In addition, they can be very expensive; for example, an aerial inspection of pipelines using manned helicopters usually costs north of US$3,000 for one hour.

The oil and gas industry is one of the top four sectors with the greatest potential for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) integration – after construction, agriculture and insurance. This is a result of three main benefits that UAVs offer over manned operations: reduced costs, improved safety and enhanced communication.

UAVs offering a smart solution

The Skeldar V-200 is a mid-range, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) rotary UAV solution that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technology for land and sea operations. It can fly for more than five hours using a heavy fuel engine, which is designed to operate on Jet A-1, JP-5 and JP-8 fuels. Its two-stroke engine configuration also provides an excellent time between overhauls (TBO) alongside additional landing and take-off assurance in environments where conventional fuels are prohibited, all of which are vital to maritime operations.

Developed with a low lifecycle cost in mind, the modular design of the Skeldar V-200 enables system customisation and functional development, with air maintenance carried out at unit level. Compartments can be easily accessed for service, maintenance and payload reconfiguration. In addition, it has a small logistic footprint in comparison to both its fixed-wing counterparts and other VTOL platforms in the same category.

Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR)

EO/IR gimbals provide advanced wide-area situational awareness and intelligence gathering through the collection, identification, categorisation and geo-location of static and moving objects of interest. It delivers real-time, HD video to decision-makers for uninterrupted surveillance of pipelines and oilfields.

Advantages of Visual Detection and Ranging (ViDAR) UAVs

ViDAR is an airborne persistent wide-area maritime search system that autonomously detects objects on the ocean surface and provides the operator with a detailed image of the items that other search methods may often miss. ViDAR provides more than 80 times the area coverage compared with existing EO/IR systems. It transforms the utility of a tactical UAV by giving it a ‘find’ function. Oil and gas industry operatives have in the past relied on larger, more expensive aircraft to detect people and objects in the ocean and on land; ViDAR provides the find capability in a smaller, more cost-effective payload.

UAV applications

UAVs, such as the V-200, enables oil and gas operatives to monitor any suspicious activities as well as check the status of the condition of hard-to-reach oilfields or cross-border pipelines. Inspecting and maintaining oil pipelines and platforms is a perilous task: many are remote and in extremely harsh environments. Rig inspections carried out by rope-access technicians can take up to eight weeks and involve shutting down production.

By capitalising on their endurance, using UAVs in these environments means it is possible to access these areas with relative ease but without exposing crew to the associated hazards. This removes risk to employee safety and consequently reduces medical expenses and lost work hours due to injury.

As well as the associated dangers, the remote location of oil and gas work also presents a challenge in gathering and sharing data. Having manned crews run inspections and repairs means a delay between data recording and analysis. In contrast, using UAVs means data can 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, the digital data enables operators to make better decisions based on more accurate data. Once a potential hazard has been identified, it can be addressed in a far shorter time than the manned alternative. This helps to identify issues earlier and reduce downtime – which is vital for organisations in charge of safeguarding critical infrastructure.

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

David Willems is with UMS Skeldar

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