Oil and gas companies worldwide are taking advantage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the oilfield - and reaping the benefits. Sending drones out to inspect oil rigs, pipelines, and flare stacks is not only enhancing worker safety – it’s saving the oil and gas industry millions.
Equipped with high resolution color imagery, 3D mapping, LiDAR, thermal, and other advanced data capacities, modern oil and gas is using drones to survey, map, inspect pipelines, detect leaks, spot corrosion, monitor construction and observe facilities – all work that can be done by a single operator from a safe, remote location.
Mordor Intelligence’s 2018 Oil & Gas Drone Services Market report describes the incredible growth in oilfield-related drone market, stating that drones are capable of collecting “as much data available in the last 30 years within 45 minutes.” The report estimates the market for drone use in the oilfield will hit $4 billion by 2020, with a 37% compound annual growth rate.
A 2016 Goldman Sachs analysis estimated the global market for using drones in refinery and offshore rig inspections could hit $1.1 billion. The market for pipeline inspections alone could be worth $41 million.
Traditionally, oil and gas companies carry out pipeline and facility inspections using rope teams, field trucks, and aircraft. Oil and gas companies have considered using drones for years, but prior to the summer of 2016, using drones commercially required an FAA “Section 333” exemption – a time-consuming application process reviewed case by case.
In 2014, BP used the FAA’s Section 333 exemption to become the first oil and gas company to use a commercial drone in U.S. operations. Using AeroVironment’s 15-pound, Kevlar fixed-wing plane, the “Puma AE UAV,” BP was able to inspect 1.8 miles of pipeline in its Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield in just 30 minutes (a task that takes a traditional survey crew five to seven days). The Puma AE UAV cost BP $250,000.
The oil and gas industry started ramping up drone use in daily operations after June 2016, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced its new commercial drone regulations as “Part 107” in Title 14 of the Federal Regulations Code. The benefits are pretty staggering.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, manual pipeline monitoring costs the oil and gas industry around $37 billion per year. Drones can cut crew demand by as much as one-third, all while collecting more accurate data in half the time of manual inspection. UAVs also allow oil and gas companies to avoid the day-long to week-long facility shutdowns often required for traditional inspection.
Named Exxon Mobil’s 2017 Diverse Supplier of the Year, Houston-based drone operations company Trumbull Unmanned is a main supplier to oil and gas giants like BP. Trumbull Unmanned CEO Dyan Gibbens stated drone-operated flare stack inspections cut costs and time by as much as 10%. Gibbens explains that drones can cut week-long inspections to less than a day, even less than an hour.
Equipped sensors and single remote operators allow drones to detect real-time oil and gas leaks and spills, rig corrosion, and heat spots - catching problems early and preventing costly accidents. The ability to remotely conduct dangerous inspections like facility flare stack checks greatly reduces the odds of worker injury and chemical exposure – all while offering enhanced data quality.
Drones are also major assets in oil and gas disaster response. In fall 2017, the Department of Energy used drones to safely and quickly inspect oil refineries for flammable leaks after Hurricane Harvey shut down 10 Gulf Coast oil refineries.
As detailed in my book, Giant Shifts: Energy Trends Reshaping America’s Future, drones are cutting inspection costs, eliminating risks, and collect more accurate, high-quality data than ever before. UAVs will be a serious game changer for the oil and gas industry, as long as regulators continue to develop safe, constructive programs to advance the market.
Moving forward, it will be important for the industry to hire superior talent in UAV technology and application, develop innovative data analysis systems, and work closely with regulators to examine new ideas for oilfield drone application.