Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Oil and Gas Industry
The oil and gas industry is currently booming with new technologies, and UAVs have certainly made their place within the industry. The technology has found novel uses in the oil and gas industry, ranging from inspection to maintenance of the facilities.
What are UAVs?
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are essentially drones and flying robots which are heavily used in surveillance throughout many industries. Unlike most drones, UAVs are heavily equipped with equipment that allows them to carry out very specific tasks.
The largest advantage of UAVs is that they are fully autonomous, therefore, they can entirely replace the need for human labour in the specific task that they are equipped to do. This makes them highly lucrative and in-demand within industries that require a lot of monotonous manual labour, such as the oil and gas industry.
Within the oil and gas industry, UAVs are used for all sorts of detection and surveillance, as well as analysis of the facilities. These include regular check-ups, such as the inspection of oil pipes and rigs, as well as emergency response, such as damage detection during oil spills.
Oil Pipe Inspection
Generically, oil pipes are miles long and often dangerous to inspect by humans. However, according to the strict standards of the industry, these inspections need to be carried out frequently and in a timely manner in order to prevent horrific accidents from happening.
This is where inspection UAVs come in. These are autonomous drones which are equipped with state of the art gas-detection and thermal scanners which can pick up gas leak or anomaly within seconds. When paired with a detection algorithm, these drones don’t even require human analysis to find the leaks.
Approximately 30% of all the oil in the world is collected from offshore oil rigs. However, inspections of these rigs are much harder than those of onshore refineries simply because they require a lot more skill and are more dangerous.
Companies such as Apellix are developing UAVs that can provide surveillance to these facilities 24/7, making them much safer to work in for employees. Along with safety, the use of UAVs eliminates the need for shutdown for inspection and is proven to increase efficiency for the refineries, resulting in increased productivity for the employers.
Tailings Ponds are used to naturally separate useful materials from rejected materials found in mining. Although using natural resources, the process deals with a lot of harmful chemicals and requires close monitoring at all times.
UAVs are a great way to provide this close monitoring. Drones equipped with chemical sensors can fly low over the water level and collect valuable data that can be used to keep safety standards in check. Using drones over other helicopters or other UAVs can make this inspection much more frequent and efficient, since drones are not subject to weather conditions and can fly much closer to the surface, collecting more reliable data.
When it comes to the environment, nothing is more harmful than oil spills. Oil spills are caused by leaking pipes and or other malfunctions within the oil rigs which no amount of inspection and maintenance can fix. The next course of action must be to contain the oil spills so that they cause the least amount of damage.
UAVs coupled with strong computer vision algorithms can fly over the affected areas and relay valuable information to first responders which would otherwise take hours (or even days), to collect by manual labour. This includes the amount of oil spilt, the density of the spill, and even the direction the spill is spreading in.
One of the most dangerous jobs on an oil and gas facility is the monitoring of flare stacks. Flare stacks are used to burn off excess gas which collects in safety valves during unplanned over pressuring. Although they are controlled combustion, these stacks are known to get out of hand rather quickly and require constant monitoring and sometimes even shutdowns.
With the use of UAV drones, these flare stacks can be monitored at all times with minimal exposure to risk for the employees of the facility. These drones can also provide immediate alerts in case of emergency, along with live footage for first responders. In this context, UAV technology is not only efficient and cost-effective, but even lifesaving.
Almost all oil and gas facilities are subject to gas emissions. The smoke and gas that is released from the facilities needs to be constantly monitored in order to make sure that there is no excess release and that the gas is under control.
Traditionally this would require hiring a team for constant inspection, however, with UAVs, this can be done autonomously with no human labour required. Drones for emission monitoring are equipped with high definition optical sensors that allow them to “see” in the visible spectrum as well as the UV and IR spectrums. This enables them to detect anomalies more accurately than humans.
All of the tasks mentioned above are crucial for an oil and gas company and required by the law. Traditionally all of these tasks required a human to be put in danger or a team to carry out a labour intensive and monotonous task. Due to the high risk factor, these jobs cost the companies a fortune.
This is why companies like Chevron, Equinor, ExxonMobil, among many others, are switching to UAV technology to carry out the tasks. In total, this technology is calculated to save upwards of $4 million annually.
The Future of UAVs in Oil and Gas
As you can see, the Oil and Gas industry requires a lot of data to be collected and analyzed. So far, UAV technology is helping to collect this data and then leaving to humans for analysis. However, as Machine Learning technologies evolve, UAVs will be able to not only collect the data around an oil rig but also analyse it for potential dangers.