As drone technologies continue to advance, more industries, including oil and gas are increasingly using them for a wide variety of applications. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV, also known as drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems - RPAS) are helping the industry to save costs and time while improving efficiency and safety. Aside from traditional visual photography, new drones and sensors are finding many applications in the oil and gas exploration, pipelines, and operations.
Drones have numerous economic and environmental benefits that enable oil and gas companies to reduce costs, improve efficiency and competitiveness. Generally, the devices are used in all phases of oil and gas activities and have the potential to support the extraction, production, and distribution.
As the drone and sensor technology continues to improve, they now have more abilities that enable them to perform a wide range of inspections and monitoring roles, and replace or supplement the traditional methods. This allows oil and gas companies to detect existing and potential faults, as well as security issues that may affect the infrastructure and the workers.
How Oil & Gas Companies will use Drone in the Future
With more competition, fluctuating prices and dwindling stocks in existing wells, the oil companies are likely to employ drones and other new technologies as they move towards non-conventional sources and challenging environments. Although drones will have many different uses in the future, here are the top three drone applications for oil and gas industry in 2023.
Gas Prospect & Exploration;
Inspecting & Monitoring Pipelines; and
Oil and Gas Facility Operations
Oil and Gas Prospect & Exploration
The unmanned vehicles provide a cost effective and safe solution in existing and new onshore and offshore sites. In particular, the devices can help oil and gas companies to carry out aerial, underground and undersea explorations. In addition to providing visual images, they can carry out other functions such as creating 3D maps of prospective sites and surroundings, magnetic surveys, and water sampling.
The data from oil rigs, offshore platforms and other areas provide valuable information that companies can use to improve operations, production and efficiency as well as ability to forecast and address breakdowns. During exploration, the appropriate sensors and software tools will provide a faster way of collecting data and calculating the geological and seismic data in onshore and offshore exploration sites.
Drone inspections enables researchers to collect vital information from prospective oil wells. Using other technologies such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and magnetometers drones can provide topographical and underground information about the new locations even before sending people to the ground. This will also help in determine the best location where to install the facility, access routes and other logistics. Using LiDAR, the UAVs will generate 3D maps which are instrumental in determining the shape and elevation of objects and a drone’s surrounding. Such maps will include landmarks such as mountains, rivers, buildings, roads and other important features that will help the engineers to plan well.
The aerial inspection provides visual images and companies can use these to get round the clock updates of the operations such as construction work. They can also help in detecting hazards or issues that require attention. The underground exploration involves using a magnetometer along a low-level flight trajectory in order to then collect important magnetic data that can help researchers determine the presence of oil products.
Oil and Gas Pipelines
Drones provide a wide range of services in ensuring that pipelines are operating efficiently and safely. The drones provide a faster and cost effective means of inspecting pipelines- something which would traditionally take weeks or months, expensive equipment, resources and manpower. In addition, the drones are able to access difficult terrain, remote locations and other hard to reach areas without exposing the workers to risks. Main applications of drones include inspection, monitoring pipeline, repairs, checking for natural conditions, etc.
Regular inspections can detect leaks, spills, and damages that may cause spillage and environmental degradation. Equipping the drones with the correct sensors enables them to provide visual and thermal inspections of both the internal and external surfaces. Identifying the direction of the spillages or gas leaks will help evacuate or keep people away from potential toxic and fire risks
It is easy to identify where the insulation is damaged and heat losses occur (during the transport of heating media). In the case of underground pipelines, any penetration of hot water causes the affected earth to heat up so it is possible to discover where the pipeline is broken underground. This means that, it is no longer necessary to excavate kilometres of pipelines due to the discovery of the place of escape. The different temperature of the background and thin areas mean there is a risk of the pipe breaking so timely intervention may prevent fatal consequences.
Other than the physical pipeline, the drones will monitor the structure against external threats such as vegetation encroachment, theft, and sabotage, as well as natural hazards such as earthquakes. In particular, special drones will be used to detect and report any seismic activities near the pipelines.
Such information will enable companies to respond promptly and reduce the impact of natural disasters. For instance, they can temporarily close the valves and stop the flow of the products, alert people in the near vicinity, and take other precautionary measures that reduce potential risks.
As technology advances, there will be drones equipped with robots that will give them the ability to repair damages, both inside the hollow spaces as well as the exterior surfaces.
Oil and Gas Facility Operations
Drones will help to streamline and improve the purification and manufacturing processes by supporting operation functions such as analysis, product segregation and logistics. For example, they can be used to carry samples, perform inspection of the processes and products as they move through different stages within the plant.
UAVs are also useful in inspecting buildings, tanks, and other vertical infrastructure, as well as confined spaces such as inside the tanks and pipes. Advantages include improved safety and inspecting the structures while they are still operating, hence minimizing shutdowns and risks since workers do not have to climb or go to dangerous locations.
As such companies will be using more of the technologies to inspect the flare stacks, cooling structures, tanks and others. Regular inspections and monitoring of these structures enable early detection and fixing of potential faults.
Besides regular inspections to identify any issues, that drones are also great damage assessment tools. Companies will also use them to enhance the safety and health of the workers. Equipped with the appropriate sensors and instruments, the drones will help the improve operations, safety and support emergency services such as evacuations.
In particular, they will be able to highlight and warn the workers about hazardous locations and environments during the exploration and extraction activities. They are also very useful in rescue missions as they can take aerial views, and indicate the safest escape route.
Other than improving monitoring and inspection of the infrastructure which enhances operations and productivity, UAVs can be used for medical purposes. Integrating other technologies and teleconferencing will allow physicians to even diagnose and treat field workers in oil rigs and remote areas.
During operations, the UAVs provide aerial inspections both in normal and emergency situations. They can perform security surveillance and send alerts in case of an emergency or intrusion. They are also useful during emergency operations and can provide live feeds of the situation, including safe escape routes, or direction fire is spreading or liquids spilling towards. Drones record all the activities and status of the assets. This provides the maintenance and security teams with the evidence or the backup of the activities at the facility, something which can be useful when investigating ethical or legal issues in the future.
Benefits of Drones in Oil & Gas Ops
The drones are ideal for providing a continuous monitoring of pipelines and other infrastructure. Generally, most drones have flexible plug and play payload, others may combine several sensors and abilities to perform complex inspection and process the data.
Major benefits of using the UAVs include improved safety, low cost, gathering and providing detailed visual and other inspection data from critical assets.
By providing regular, inexpensive and fast inspections, the drones improve the efficiency and productivity. This is because they can identify existing and potential faults, thus enabling maintenance teams to rectify them in good time.
Future of Drones in Oil & Gas
As drones and other technologies continue to evolve, the future devices will have much more capabilities.
The devices will also become smarter and enable operators to efficiently check various infrastructure conditions using infrared cameras, corrosion testing technologies, gas detectors, 3D laser scanning, ultrasonic testing, and more. Others will be dedicated to specific industries. For example, a drone robot will be able to inspect and repair oil and gas assets such as pipelines.
Companies will move away from traditional methods that rely on fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters to perform aerial inspections of the pipelines and other structures. With drones becoming more affordable, and flexible with more capabilities, most companies will have to adopt them to improve their operations, efficiency, and competitiveness.
Companies will in the future rely on drones to carry out an initial site evaluation, as well as monitor and inspect pipelines, refining, and production facilities. And their flexibility and abilities will help the companies to easily, safely and quickly detect leaks, corrosion, theft, and other fault and security issues.
However, for the effective UAV applications, there are several challenges to overcome. This includes the connectivity, networks, security, and scalability. There is also need to overcome regulations and compliance issues.
Drones are increasingly enabling oil and gas companies to inspect their infrastructure and assets faster, safer and more economically. Using a wide range of sensors, drones collect all kinds of data that operators are able to view in real time. This allows the oil and gas companies to identify issues and improve their operations, maintenance and safety.
The drones have the potential to replace the traditional manual inspection methods and provide better and more detailed data while reducing safety risks, costs, and operational downtime.
Using other supporting technologies such as AI, wireless networks, analytics, robotics, IoT, and cloud systems, the companies can access a multitude of datasets and make better data-driven decisions.