Rise of the Drones: Q&A on the Use of UAVs in the Pipeline Industry


ULC Robotics Head UAV Pilot Christopher Maier Discusses Unmanned Aircraft in the Pipeline Sector

Drones have become increasingly popular throughout our culture and are gaining ground in the industrial sector. New applications for these unmanned aircraft seem to spring up
every day. The oil and gas industry is no different.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for various inspection duties along pipeline rights of way. Companies like ULC Robotics Inc. are advancing the use of these state-of-the-art tools for commercial utility industry aerial inspection. The company recently completed a successful flight test of a newly developed vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing UAV in August. As a leading robotics, energy services and research and development company focused on the energy and utility industries, the company’s commercial-grade VTOL fixed-wing UAV was specifically developed to meet the inspection needs of electric and gas utilities.

The UAV was designed and built from the ground up by ULC’s Aerial Services and engineering teams. As a result, it is a powerful and versatile platform with a 10-ft wingspan and a sensor payload capacity of 10 lbs for conducting fully autonomous aerial inspections and assessments of a variety of utility structures and properties, including electrical transmission lines, gas transmission pipelines and rights of way.

ULC Aerial Services is working with gas and electric utilities across the United States to develop the VTOL aircraft with the most beneficial commercial utility applications. Upcoming test flights and pilot programs using the VTOL are a critical step toward the drone’s ability to gather valuable imagery and data for enhancing utility infrastructure.

In order to collect specialized data for the divisions’ utility customers, ULC will be integrating a variety of sensor and monitoring payloads into the VTOL platform. The UAV will continue to be flight tested with radiometric thermal cameras and high-resolution imaging systems and, with the 10-lb payload capacity, more than one system can be included on the aircraft at a time. The company also plans to integrate LiDAR, gas leak detection sensors and other advanced systems onto the payload of
the drone.

The VTOL UAV has a set of eight quad-copter rotors for VTOL, then after reaching a predetermined altitude and airspeed, the aircraft transitions into highly-efficient, forward flight combining the practical functionality of multi-rotor UAV and the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.

The drone is currently running an electric propulsion system with a one- to one-and-a-half hour flight time. In the near future, ULC Aerial Services intends to integrate an electric/gas hybrid propulsion system that will allow for a five-hour endurance and 50 mph cruise speed (250-mile range), laying the groundwork for beyond visual line of sight flight.

North American Oil & Gas Pipelines conducted an interview with ULC Robotics’ head UAV pilot, Christopher Maier, to better understand how drones can be used in the industrial sector and how they can be deployed in the oil and gas pipeline industry specifically.

Why are UAVs or drones becoming more prevalent in the industrial sector?

The adoption of UAV technology is becoming more prevalent because companies are finding tremendous value in utilizing them. The use of UAVs are pushing the boundaries of the traditional industry methods that require extensive labor, time and resources. Drones increase efficiency, reduce costs and provide increasingly more precise, accurate data that improve overall ROI.

The adoption of drone technology across industries is quickly becoming a more common business practice which companies are starting to realize the potential benefits of, rather than a trend or a fad.

What is ULC’s role in providing UAV services to the oil and gas pipeline/utility sector?

Our UAV pilots, electronic engineers, sensor scientists and software developers work with our utility customers to conduct test flights and commercial aerial inspections, test sensors, develop procedures, conduct UAV related R&D projects and more.

We have been working in the utility and energy industry for more than 20 years, and this knowledge allows us to understand the real-world conditions that our UAV technology will be applied in, ensuring we provide the most viable solutions that will work to deliver efficiency and high-quality data utilities require to operate their infrastructure safely and reliably.

In addition, because our UAVs are custom developed in-house with carefully selected sensors, electronics, and mechanics the systems are backed by our R&D and field operations teams, as well a team of expert unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) consultants. Our team ensures our work with those in the oil and gas pipeline/utility sector provides the highest and most valuable UAV inspection data to find and address areas of concern.

How did the needs of the oil and gas pipeline/utility industry impact how ULC designed its UAV?

Our VTOL UAV was designed specifically with gas and electric utility feedback. Because gas and electric transmission lines can run for several hundreds of miles we received input from our clients that a UAV with the capability to remain in flight and inspect infrastructure for multiple hours would be ideal. From there we created the aircraft, incorporated the VTOL gear and payload capacity, and integrated a hybrid gas/electric propulsion system for the most efficient and beneficial flights. By doing this, we are able to gather large amounts of data rather than being limited by the standard set of capabilities available on commercial aircraft.

ulc robotics drone

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — are becoming more prevalent in industrial sectors. ULC Robotics is among the companies developing UAV use for utility oil and gas pipeline applications.

Are oil and gas pipeline/utility operators operating their own UAV programs or hiring outside service companies?

There are many utilities that are operating their own UAV programs and those that are outsourcing the work to vendors. How each individual utility approaches the implementation of innovative technology into its operations is dependent upon their needs and resources. However, if a company determines operating their UAV program is best, there are a few things to consider including ensuring pilots are qualified/certified to fly, have the ability to program the UAV, operate it, capture and process high-quality images, maps, and reports and that the utility itself has the time and resources available to build and maintain a fully functioning in-house UAV division. In addition, one must consider compliance with FAA regulations, liability issues and working with local authorities prior to flight missions.

Why are UAVs well-suited for oil and gas pipeline and utility applications?

UAVs in the oil and gas industry are well-suited to meet the needs of operators across multiple applications due to a UAVs capabilities to not only visually assess assets, but to also gather and provide a variety of data sets. When pipelines can be assessed both visually and using a variety of sensors, the UAV can identify areas of corrosion or damage. In addition, the use of multiple types of sensors including LiDAR, thermal and gas leak detection sensors can identify critical issues on and surrounding the pipeline. The process of equipping a UAV with high-quality visuals and sensor equipment is putting smart instrumentation into the sky giving utilities a new solution to identify and address potential issues while remaining cost-effective and keeping workers safe.

How are UAVs being used in the oil and gas pipeline/utility sector?

The uses for UAVs in the oil/gas pipeline industry is significantly growing. Inspections and surveys for vegetation management purposes, encroachment or construction activity near pipelines and leak detection are some of the main applications for UAV use. By using a UAV to conduct these types of inspections and assessments it is allowing allow for safe, efficient and high-quality visual and sensor inspections of bridges, buildings, and pipelines; or as a damage assessment tool. Across North America, the monitoring of oil and gas pipeline assets are largely done on foot, via ground transportation or by helicopter. All of our energy sector customers are very focused on not only driving down lost time accidents and OSHA recordables but also reducing precursor safety incidents such as motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) or minor slips, trips and falls often associated with traditional inspections. By utilizing drones to conduct these assessments operators can greatly reduce the safety risks associated with inspections. Also cost savings can be realized in highly trafficked areas and in remote locations where walking or driving can take a considerable amount of time, but unauthorized activity or vegetation overgrowth near the pipelines is most prevalent.

What are the challenges of implementing a UAV program in the oil and gas pipeline/utility sector?

I mentioned this briefly above, but some of the biggest challenges for UAV service providers lies within working with the utilities, regulators and the FAA to ensure a safe and beneficial UAV program is in place. For the oil/gas pipeline and utility companies, struggles lie within planning to use the technology and its implementation. Integrating new data into existing systems, determining when/where the best use for the UAV, providing the proper resources to improve their business, developing cost benefits reports, etc. Putting a UAV into regular practice — regularly patrolling, providing comparison reports, etc. — seems simple to implement yet it is a complex and strategic process that involves working closely with regulators, developing utility-specific mission plans, and ensuring the utility is receiving the exact data needed to improve the operations and management of their assets.

What should a pipeline/utility operator know before establishing a UAV division?

A utility company should be aware of where their service territory lies with respect to the classifications within the National Airspace System. Operating around major cities can be very difficult and require advanced knowledge of FAA regulations and airspace as well as real world experience to conduct operations safely. Maintaining a fleet of UAVs, pilots and technicians is no small task, a UAV program should be looked at as any other manned aircraft or machinery program where safety is critical. Regular training and skills assessments should be conducted to ensure all personnel are willing and able to conduct each mission safely and efficiently.

What should and pipeline/utility operator look for when purchasing a UAV and/or hiring a service company to conduct a UAV program?

If a pipeline or utility operator is looking to purchase a UAV for internal use, the identification process for the appropriate UAV with the proper capabilities are somewhat unorthodox. First, the utility needs to identify what type of data they want to collect – high resolution color imagery, multispectral imagery, LiDAR, Thermal or other data sets. Once the data set need is established, then the utility must identify the quantity of work. The UAV requirements for short comprehensive inspection missions are much different than long transmission line mapping flights. After these conditions are identified, the aircraft itself comes into play. The type and size of the aircraft will greatly depend on the previously mentioned conditions. A small quad-copter carrying a visual payload of more than 2 lbs is readily available and easy to operate, but has very limited capabilities. A larger fixed-wing or hybrid aircraft may have the capability to meet the company’s greatest needs but requires intensive training and regular maintenance to maintain airworthiness. Operating any type of UAV within the National Airspace System requires a great deal of knowledge, experience and support to be effective while also remaining safe and within the guidelines of the FAA and the gas/oil regulators. Think carefully, using a professional small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) company’s services, as a vendor such as ULC Robotics, may prove to be much more timely and cost effective than the alternative.


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