Commercial drones capture visual data of hard-to-reach, dangerous equipment in the oil and gas industry, so inspectors can stay safely on the ground.
When his career began two decades ago, Chris Fleming used ropes and harnesses to inspect oil and gas facilities. He scaled up and rappelled down refinery equipment like a gravity defying mountain climber.
“I would abseil off the side of a platform, or I would climb to the very top of a derrick or a flare stack on an offshore platform,” said Fleming. “Then I would carry out my inspection, usually with a team of two other people.”
He said refinery inspectors had to work at precarious heights, in remote locations, often near hazardous flames and noxious chemicals.
When his business partner, Malcolm Connolly, got the idea to use a drone to conduct inspections, Fleming knew it could revolutionize the oil and gas industry.
That idea led Fleming and Connolly to co-found Cyberhawk, a Scotland-based company that provides aerial inspection and survey services to oil and gas companies across the globe.
Fleming said drones make inspections safer for inspectors, but they also digitize the process so inspection data can be tracked and analyzed more efficiently than manual inspections.
Drones equipped with cameras can capture visual information without putting people at risk. Inspection drones can quickly capture visual or thermal images of flare stacks, underdecks, cooling towers and chimneys, and confined spaces. They allow inspectors to examine equipment without shutting down the facility, according to Fleming.
“Any time you can reduce or stop a plant from shutting down, you’re saving the customer millions of dollars,” said Fleming.
Without drones, it can take days to weeks to bring the plant offline and make it accessible for workers, who rely on harnesses and cable equipment to hang midair while manually collecting information on the structure, said Fleming.
Fleming believes drone inspections can save oil and gas companies $1 million to $5 million per day in recovered production costs.
Recently, Cyberhawk teamed up with Intel to inspect a gas terminal in St. Fergus, Scotland using an Intel Falcon 8+ commercial drone.
Over the span of two days, the drone captured 1,100 images, translating to 12GB of data. Fleming said this would have typically taken a three-man team three days to achieve.
The inspection drone had to contend with potential hazards when flying above the gas terminal to survey the condition of the refinery equipment.
“Flying in Scotland, the devices have to withstand strong winds,” Fleming said.
Powered by eight motors and propellers, the V-shaped drone is designed to withstand strong winds in challenging environments. Using real-time air compensation, the Falcon 8+ used built-in automated redundancies that keep the drone balanced and functioning safely, even if one or two motors stop.
Commercial drone innovation is advancing rapidly. These flying robots are mature and simple enough for industries to use drones now, according to Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager within Intel’s New Technology Group.
“Drones make inspection workflows faster, cheaper and safer,” said Nanduri.
Looking Ahead for Safety
Innovations in artificial intelligence and cloud computing capabilities will make drones even smarter and more capable.
“They’re going to be able to detect defects and issues on the fly, and notify us in real time to take action,” Nanduri said.
Inspection drones that can plan their own flight paths, self-navigate around obstacles, and automatically find and flag information of interest are attractive not only to the oil and gas industry, but also to construction, manufacturing, agriculture and even emergency response, said Fleming.
“In the last 20 years that I’ve worked in the inspection industry, drones are the biggest single change we’ve seen to date,” said Fleming.
“It will revolutionize the way that we do asset inspection.”