Taking to the Skies: Launching an Oil and Gas Drone Inspection Program

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The United States is home to more than 2.4 million miles of pipeline, making its network of energy pipelines the largest in the world. For an oil and gas firm, managing that amount of pipeline requires regular inspections that often come with inherent risks and significant costs.

Driving trucks can be hazardous due to lease roads that develop potholes and washed-out areas thanks to inclement weather. While performing routine inspections and maintenance — such as walking a pipeline or checking well pad equipment — field workers frequently encounter hazards related to their sheer proximity to the equipment. The larger the stand-off distance a technician has while inspecting assets, the better, but other methods of inspection that increase the stand-off distance of crews carry additional cost. Manned aircraft, such as helicopters, can cost up to $1,250 USD per rotor hour and image quality is generally lackluster.

Drones have proven to be an effective tool in improving oil and gas asset management due to their ability to collect quality images and geospatial data while keeping inspection crews away from hazardous equipment. Using this technology, leading oil and gas enterprises have replaced manned aircraft inspections with drone deployments, ultimately gaining unprecedented insight into the condition of critical assets.

Drone inspection programs not only offer a more flexible and cost-effective way to manage assets, but also a data-intensive structure for tracking conditions over time. These programs can be deployed across the hydrocarbon supply chain. Oil and gas operators have found success across a variety of upstream, midstream and downstream applications with some achieving up to a 50 percent reduction in inspection costs. So, how do you go about deploying a drone-based inspection program that not only increases the overall efficiency of your asset management processes, but also makes conditions safer for your staff? Here are the five key steps to planning and launching a successful oil and gas drone inspection program.

Step 1 Discovery

The launch of any new program should begin with identifying the problems you’re trying to solve and the resources available to you to address those problems. But, before you dive into researching the difference between the various commercial drones on the market, take the time to create a summary of what you want to get out of a drone program.

  • What are your key pain points?
  • What types of data are you looking to collect?
  • Who is going to collect the data — internal or external drone pilots?
  • How will the data be processed?
  • What analytics are required for this data to be useful in the field?

The question of who should collect data about your assets’ health is a big one and the answer depends on your requirements, timeline, budget and appetite for risk. There are three common strategies to consider, each with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

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In an outsourced approach, a third-party provider will manage the drone deployment from end-to-end. This approach allows you to save on costs and offers great scalability options, however the drone operations will be separate from general maintenance procedures.

Another approach to consider is insourcing. This entails hiring your own drone operators and purchasing the required equipment yourself. The main benefit of this approach is that you can cross-train existing staff and integrate the drone program fully into existing operations. However, there are greater upfront costs associated with this model, and you’ll also be fully exposed to aerospace regulatory and safety risks.

The third option for launching a drone program is to take a hybrid approach. Like the name suggests, this approach incorporates aspects of both outsourced and insourced models. A hybrid strategy involves establishing a staff of drone operators and augmenting that staff with third-party providers when needed. Drawbacks to this approach include higher up-front costs, similar to those associated with insourced programs, and increased coordination requirements between internal and third-party teams.

Whether you decide to go it alone or bring in a third party (or a little of both), you’ll need to define a comprehensive drone strategy. With a complete strategy in place, you can identify cost centers and forecast your return on investment, as well as determine existing processes that need to be updated or integrated into the new drone program. It’s also important to consider current operations and safety protocols as they may impact future drone operations.

With a thoughtfully designed program based on these details, you’ll be taking to the skies in no time.

Step 2 Waivers and Certifications

Securing the correct certifications and waivers is essential to a successful drone program. Penalties for flying a commercial drone without a license, or hiring a non-licensed drone pilot, can result in the suspension or revocation of existing licenses, denial of an application for a pilot’s license and significant civil penalties. Although rare, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may also impose criminal sanctions for unlicensed or illegal drone operations.

If you decide to proceed with launching an insourced drone inspection program, you will need to confirm that whoever will be operating your drones is fully certified and that all necessary waivers are secured. All commercial drone pilots must be certified under the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Rule (Part 107). This certificate demonstrates that the pilot understands the regulations, operating requirements and procedures for safely flying drones. Any drone pilot who is not Part 107-certified is not authorized to fly drones for any commercial purpose.

While Part 107 offers a general license for commercial drone operations, some types of missions aren’t permitted. For instance, in order to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to capture more area in a single deployment, flying drones over people, flying in restricted areas of airspace and nighttime operation requires a waiver from the FAA.

If you decided to adopt an outsourced drone program, these certification and waiver requirements will be a non-issue, as any reputable drone service provider only employs credentialed drone operators and flight planners.

setting up a drone

Drone inspection programs offer a flexible and cost-effective way to manage assets. Operators have found success across a variety of upstream, midstream and downstream applications with some achieving up to a 50 percent reduction in inspection costs

Step 3 Equipment

Now that you have your Part 107-certified drone operator and all the necessary waivers to fly drones commercially for your business, it’s time to look at the technology itself.

Hardware

A safe and productive flight is dependent on good hardware, but oil fields and pipelines present a challenging environment for any aircraft as they are often in windy, wet or rugged terrain. Drone operators need hardware that’s purpose-built for these challenging environments. In order to remain agile in high-wind operations, drones must be lightweight and robust. They also need to include guards for the propellers to mitigate damage or personal injury (this also allows for deployments in close quarters).

However, one of the most important aspects of using drones for aerial inspections is the addition of a quality, cutting-edge sensor. By adding the correct sensor to your hardware, your drone operator can balance advanced data fidelity while ensuring the safety of your drone mission.

Multiple types of data are required in order to effectively manage oil and gas assets. Drone operators working with oil and gas firms today typically deploy a range of sensors including thermal, infrared and LiDAR sensors as well as methane detection lasers and optical gas indicators (OGI). In short, the higher the quality of the sensor payload, the higher the quality of the data.

Software

Leading-edge drone software allows operators to deliver enhanced data analytics from their inspections, rather than simply delivering imagery.

By using software that provides increased analytical outputs, operators can create 2D and 3D orthomosaics that offer a more detailed view of damage, such as cracks or erosion, without having to halt production. Advanced flight software also allows operators to automate flights, review surveys offline and process and analyze data to better optimize the management of assets and infrastructure.

Step 4 Safety and Insurance

While pilots licensed under Part 107 have already demonstrated that they have the proper certifications for commercial drone activities, operating in the oil and gas industry requires that you take additional safety precautions. While drone crashes that result in damage or injury are rare, accidents can still occur. Independent drone service providers should carry their own hull and liability insurance, both for the equipment and for bodily injury, but if you’re planning to launch a fully-fledged drone inspection program, you should consider carrying additional, internal policies. It’s also recommended that oil and gas firms develop a dedicated safety manual for drone operations that’s compliant with OSHA and consistent with existing safety protocols.

Beyond the quality of the drones and flight software, the skills of your drone operators are critical to the safety and effectiveness of your drone-based inspections. The pilot in command must understand your objectives and follow rigorous procedures, regardless of whether they’re your own staff or a third-party drone service provider. Pilots should understand the assets and area of interest to be inspected and should complete training specific to the oil and gas environment. They should also follow flight standards, maintain safety management systems and protect mission data. These are just a few of the requirements you should demand of your pilots in order to ensure safe and secure operations.

Drone in flight

A safe and productive flight is dependent on good hardware, but oil fields and pipelines present a challenging environment for any aircraft as they are often in windy, wet or rugged terrain.

Step 5 Data Management

As discussed in the equipment section, drones are more than just flying cameras. When equipped with the right sensors, multiple high-resolution cameras and cutting-edge software, the data that can be collected and delivered via drones is unparalleled in both quantity and quality. As such, having a strategy in place for data analysis and delivery is crucial to getting the most out of your drone investment.

Similar to the approach you took to designing your drone program, you’ll need to evaluate if you want to keep the data analysis process in-house or outsource it to a third party. Consider the security and privacy requirements for your organization and ensure that you have complete control over the data value chain for your drone program. Even if you decide on an outsourced approach, having a comprehensive data management strategy will ensure that you’re converting data into actionable insights.

Take Off!

Congratulations on launching your drone inspection program. If you followed these steps, found the right partners and did your due diligence, you should soon see the fruits of your labor. The cost savings resulting from drone inspection programs are significant: one oil and gas firm determined that the use of drones reduced inspection costs by approximately 66%, from $80–$90 per well pad from traditional inspection methodology to $45–$60 per well pad.

By removing the necessity of manual inspections, oil and gas companies can use technicians to focus on either higher value-added inspections or maintenance alone. The real economic benefit isn’t in the cost reduction or an increase in the number of well pads you can inspect in a day — it’s in having your technicians available to focus on uptime and drive or maintain overall revenue. If you can make that happen, you can consider your drone inspection program a success.

Nehemiah Katz is vice president of oil and gas operations at PrecisionHawk, leading the company’s energy consulting efforts. Katz began his career as a Marine Officer and transitioned into strategy consulting with companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Shell.

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