Por Inés Oria
Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles have become the cheapest and most efficient way to perform the most complicated and dangerous tasks. This technology helps detect issues before it is too late, resulting in significant savings for companies and eliminating risks for employees
Despite the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was far from living the information era, he understood the value it had. So much so that in the 18th century he claimed that the success of a war lied, 90 percent, in information. Today more than ever, the information has become an important ally for human kind, not only giving power, but also enabling certain tasks, saving costs and avoiding risks. Precisely, these are the three main advantages that unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs or drones) offer to companies engaged in oil exploration and production.
This is so true that one of the first applications that drones had at industrial level has been in the hydrocarbon sector. More and more companies are using this technology when it comes to performing the most complex tasks saving time, money and avoiding risks for employees.
Drones entered in the oil industry in 2006, when the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the British BP the first authorization to use them in its oil fields in Alaska. It is an area where human presence is very scarce and most of the infrastructures flow with the least control. Thanks to UAVs, the company may now obtain information (photographs, 3D images, volume measurements and topographic studies) that allow preventing damages in a cheaper and efficient way when compared to traditional methods used before.
Faster Control Methods
For BP, this technology is very valuable as climate conditions of the region (floods, temperatures below zero, and ice) alter the topography and it is extremely difficult for control methods. “A drone takes 30 minutes to check a section of three kilometers of pipeline. A human being would take up to seven days to do so,” is pointed out from the Company. In addition to BP, many other companies of the industry have started using these devices for more expensive and complicated tasks, especially since the FAA relaxed its position regarding UAVs flights in the US air space in early 2015. ExxonMobil, Shell, Apache, BG Group and Statoil use air robots to examine refineries and offshore platforms. Also Repsol has started using these devices in a test phase to check some of its facilities.
How does a drone work?
UAVs use a very sophisticated technology; that is why they are classified as aircrafts. It is a small and light vehicle mainly made up of carbon fiber, whose major innovation is in the kit of high resolution photography and video they are able to obtain. Some versions also include remote sensors that capture 3D images. Although more and more drones are able to fly with certain autonomy level, most of these devices work through orders that an operator transmits from a far-reaching remote control, while an engineer is in charge of operating onboard cameras (see Figure 1). Likewise, there are other unmanned aircraft vehicles controlled by radio that, even having a shorter reach, are much appropriated to control vertical structures, such as torches, refrigeration towers or power lines. By means of a GPS device and marking the satellite location positions,the robot will carefully follow the path drawn by the comptroller, who will gradually increase and decrease acceleration and height from a computer, based on the needs.
The demand for use among the oil companies has made companies specialized in manufacturing drones for this sector appear. They assure that this technology allows detecting problems before it is too late, with significant cost reductions for companies, which can inspect specific elements with no need to stop the plant’s activities.
Drones created by these companies fly over the facilities and collect detailed information that allows detecting any irregular activity. “The data obtained help our customers plan maintenance works, organize the replacement of spare parts, and manage staff more efficiently. A good example is the work recently carried out in a production platform in the North Sea, United Kingdom. Our team reviewed 12 different areas in 14 days. Using traditional methods the customer would have taken 700 to carry out the same tasks,” notes Chris Blackford, cofounder of Sky Futures, a company specialized in manufacturing drones for the oil industry. “In regular inspections our staff usually takes five days to carrout a work that technicians would perform in about eight weeks,” he adds.
More applications in the industry
According to a study of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the integration of UAVs in the commercial air space would lead to an economic impact of almost $14 billion between 2015 and 2018, and will have the potential to create more than 100,000 new jobs. Calculations made by the International Federation of Robotics show that the world expense in this regard will exceed $30 billion between 2015 and 2025 (see Figure 2). The industrial sector will be one with a larger increase, with a compound annual growth ratio of 12.3 percent. In fact, in ten years 1.2 million robots are expected to be used for industry-related tasks. It is no surprise in the case of the energy sector, where topography, leak detection and location methods used to be inefficient and expensive. Thus, drones have become an effective and safe solution when it comes to performing these tasks.
They allow obtaining detailed images of torch heads, a much critical area for human inspection, eliminating the risk for employees, and with no need to stop plant’s production. “Torch inspections have turned out to be a highly demanded service as it may generate savings for up to $4,000,” remarks Blackford. UAVs are also the cheapest option to review thousands of kilometers of pipelines transporting oil and gas all over the world.
These infrastructures need to be constantly monitored to record possible leaks giving rise to fires and explosions. Actually, Nigeria’s oil company has announced that it will deploy drones to protect from theft pipelines that go across the desert areas of the country. According to the company, attacks to pipelines to steal crude oil are the root cause of most of the spills occurred in those areas. But if the spill cannot be avoided, drones also help quantify its consequences, as they are able to detect the areas where oil has reached, the speed with which water moves, or the specific areas that have received it. This information may be decisive when managing the protocol of actions to mitigate the damages.
More safety for employees However, one of the main advantages offered by these aircrafts is very useful in the realm of safety for employees. Until now, workers risked their lives when climbing to refrigeration towers, inspecting offshore platforms or reviewing the conditions of torches. In the present, an UAV may carry out all these tasks with no need to put technicians at risk. “We cannot fully replace technicians, their intervention is still needed in replacement and repair tasks, but we can notably reduce their exposure during the first inspection,” notes the co-founder of Sky Futures. Beyond oil companies, other energy companies are using this technology for their daily tasks. Iberdrola and Endesa have recently incorporated UAVs to check its electricity network. The devices are equipped with high resolution cameras that allow capturing images of lines in areas difficult to access, favoring the works of surveillance in the power grid. “The use of drones enables speeding up inspections, as by eliminating the work of technician on the network, there is no need to cut supply. In addition, it improves the quality and continuity of the service, while it offers more safety to workers performing inspections,” claims Endesa.
Future uses Although most works performed by UAVs in the oil industry have been focused on pipeline monitoring, inspection of infrastructures and geological cartography, there are very attractive opportunities to collect other type of data. The use of this technology to carry out logistics and transportation works especially in risk areas such as Alaska, rainforests, or territories in conflict, is becoming one of the most defined trends in the sector. “We are testing gas detection and laser measurement services, and we expect to launch these applications soon,” adds Sky Futures. Research is also conducted on the potential of drones in the interior of containers and tanks as well as in topographic surveys.