The largest oil and gas companies around the world now deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, to address a wide variety of operational challenges. This rapidly improving technology, along with advances in big data and artificial intelligence, is poised to transform the O&G industry in the coming years. The aerial intelligence provided by drones offers several key benefits, including safer inspections and helping companies comply with regulatory requirements — while saving them millions of dollars in labor, remediation, and other costs. Drones are the perfect solution for conducting visual inspections of infrastructure and gathering extensive data. An increasing number of O&G companies use drones to perform 4 basic industry functions: Pipeline inspection & monitoring; Oil well & rig inspection; Surveying & construction monitoring, and Detect Orphan O&G Wells. Drones conduct surveys at a significantly lower cost than ground, manned aircraft or helicopter inspection crews.
Pipeline Inspection and Monitoring
By taking photos and videos of above-ground pipelines, drones allow inspectors in the field or engineers in a remote location to view pipes, either in real time or later. The operator can zero in on areas of concern to gather additional information and, if necessary, recommend that a ground crew visually check the area.
To detect potential underground leaks, drones take photos along pipeline routes. User-friendly software from DJI combines these images, creating high-resolution vegetation maps that identify plant kill-off zones, which may indicate a leak. Equipping a drone with an infrared camera provides an additional way to inspect pipelines: Thermal imagery of pipeline routes reveal hotspots, which may indicate potential defects in pipeline insulation or leaks invisible to the human eye.
Drone images also detect anomalies along a pipeline network or any encroachments, such as construction or roadwork, on a right-of-way that could threaten the integrity of the pipeline. In case of significant leaks, explosions or other emergency situations, drones provide real-time video to help emergency response teams assess the situation before sending in crews.
Oil Well and Rig Inspection
O&G companies also use drones to photograph oil wells and offshore rigs throughout the initial drilling process. Once the well is operating, drones efficiently monitor operations. For example, they provide a close-up look at a flare stack while it’s in service. That provides a real benefit to the traditional approach: shutting down the flare system and assigning an inspector to climb the stack to examine it.
In this case, a drone inspection saves weeks of physical inspection preparation and avoids significant loss of productivity and revenue due to an operational shutdown. Drone inspections help companies prevent health and safety events (HSE), allowing them to address operational issues without sending employees into dangerous zones. Drones also provide easy surveillance of remote or hard-to-reach assets, such as storage tanks.
Surveying and Construction Monitoring
Drones are taking on an expanding role in both the oil exploration and construction stages.2 They survey prospective drilling locations and gather key data without the time and expense of traditional surveying methods. Once a well site is ready for development, drones deployed during the construction stage of wells, rigs, pipelines and refineries conduct crucial as-built surveys, allowing managers to keep track of a project’s progress and provide quality assurance of the build-outs.
Construction compliance officers use drone photos to compare actual conditions to pre-construction designs, as well as to detect and correct plan defects and deviations and spot any potential safety issues. This information also helps streamline decision-making throughout the project. Companies can even create, document and share a visual timeline with all stakeholders. Once construction is finished, drones provide a digital 3-D representation of structures to use as a baseline reference.
Drones provide extremely precise aerial intelligence that simplifies and improves a wide range of O&G processes. Whether inspecting hundreds of miles of oil pipelines for leaks, helping employees keep operations in compliance with regulations or enabling companies to construct infrastructure more efficiently, agile and flexible UAVs have quickly become a go-to tool for operators around the world.
Detect Orphaned O&G Wells
Recent advances in autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, along with successful efforts to miniaturize total field magnetometers, offer a unique opportunity to test low-cost UAV-mounted systems for wide-area high-resolution magnetic surveys. Modern UAV platforms capable of flying at low altitudes and collecting dense aerial surveys, coupled with sensitive and compact instruments, allow identification of anthropogenic targets previously identifiable only in ground magnetometer surveys.
A recent study focused on developing and field testing a UAV-based magnetometer system to detect and identify abandoned and unmarked oil and gas wells in an area of historical hydrocarbon exploration. Results indicated that magnetic anomalies associated with metal casing of vertical wells are pronounced considerably above background levels both at the surface and up to 50 m above-ground level (AGL). This demonstrated that UAV-based magnetometer systems can successfully detect unmarked well sites using characteristic magnetic signals generated by vertical metal piping preserved in the ground. Our results show that it is possible to detect uncapped leaking wells by associating magnetic signatures with detected methane emission hotspots. This in turn, allows for future sustainable development of these areas.
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