The oil and gas industry has come to rely on commercial drones for inspection and data-gathering purposes in recent years. As early as 2014, the petroleum company BP received FAA authorization to use commercial drones to monitor its facilities. Since then, the number of drones, pilots, and services that cater to these industries has grown exponentially. Durable professional drone designs that are equipped with the latest high-definition and advanced thermal cameras, as well as specialized sensors, can be useful for a wide variety of oil and gas applications.

Drones have already been used to perform pipeline inspections over large areas including terrain that previously required the use of manned helicopters. Inspections at on- and off-shore operations have historically required costly shutdowns as well as the use of risky rope access and scaffolding methods that put workers at risk. Inspections can be completed in a manner that is more cost-effective, productive, quick, and safe by manually-piloted or automated drones.

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Oil and Gas Drone Components

The types of industrial drones that are used in the oil and gas industry are outwardly similar to commercial or professional drones. A professional drone such as one of the offerings in the DJI Matrice series has comparable core components and flight times to drones used for commercial or industrial applications. Many services that specialize in supplying oil and gas companies with drones or aerial imaging services and data gathering offer packages that include top-level models from respected brands that also manufacture consumer drones. There are also some specialized drone makers that specialize in their own unique industrial drone designs and software for use in specific industries.

In general, drones that are intended for use in the oil and gas industry or for similar industrial purposes are capable of achieving relatively lengthy flight times. These drones feature powerful cameras for high-resolution imaging consisting of stills and video footage and often also feature thermal cameras for obtaining more complete data below the visible surface. Common uses for drones in this industry include monitoring the conditions and flow between upstream systems, midstream infrastructure, and downstream facilities for leaks or any signs of infrastructural damage such as corrosion or rust. Thermal energy can be used to detect the distribution of natural gas in a piping system and detect pitting. These drones can also be equipped with optical airborne gas sensors or precision laser measurement hardware to allow them to obtain nearly any necessary type of inspection data.

Advantages and Challenges

There are many significant advantages to performing inspections and other essential imaging and monitoring tasks using commercial drones. These advantages are maximized when the drones that are being used are equipped with specialized hardware and sensors that enable them to provide the most useful data for designated analysts at companies in the oil and gas industry. For one, drones that are piloted either by humans or by algorithms are much more cost-effective and safe than relying on helicopters, ropes, or scaffolding for inspections.

The use of drones can all but eliminate risk for human inspectors and workers as well as the need to temporarily shut down facilities for inspection. As a result, inspections can be performed with a greater frequency under standard operating conditions. This can allow for a greater degree of preventative maintenance as opposed to responses to anomalies that have already advanced to the point that they are causing environmentally detrimental leaks and expensive and potentially dangerous downtimes.

Fleets of drones can also be used to enhance the security of equipment, property, resources, and technology on a daily basis Companies in the oil and gas sector that decide to depend on drones can obtain more data with greater frequency than they otherwise could and more than any competitors that are not yet capable of these constant and refined observations. Given the proper analysis of these data sets, this information can be used to generate more effective and profitable operational, maintenance, and security plans and protocols. Depending on whether a company would prefer to invest in the capacity to perform perpetual independent drone imaging or simply have this option from an on-call service, they can work with contractors and suppliers to achieve the right drone solutions for maximizing safety and savings.

Some of the major challenges that still exist when it comes to the use of drones in the oil and gas industry include durability and flight time. Drone design and materials are becoming increasingly resilient and innovative systems are also being created to charge and shelter these devices. One system includes so-called pit stops or charging points located along flight routes to increase the distance capacity of each drone. These systems could work with either manual or automated drones. In at least one instance, this system consists of weather-shielded domes that protect drones and can allow them to charge if they run out of power or conditions become unsuitable for a continued flight for any reason.

Other companies and aerial imaging services provide fleets of drones that can be assigned to cover small portions of vast areas, capturing footage and data simultaneously. This strategy allows for the full inspection of an area such as a large tank farm or length of pipeline in far less time than a single drone, even with charging points or extended flight times. Any drone-based inspection is likely to be more affordable and fast and less risky than traditional manned methods.

Future Innovations

Given the rapid pace of drone development over the last several years, it may become feasible for companies or firms to depend on fewer or more specialized drones to perform inspection tasks with fewer resources and greater efficiency. There is also likely to be widespread growth and development in the generation of drone and fleet flying algorithms and software that will empower companies to take the creation of complex large-scale flight plans into their own hands or all-but-completely automate data and imagery gathering missions.

Continued developments in the field of automated flight raise the prospect of a future in which commercial drones are used all of the time for monitoring and inspection in the oil and gas industry and many other commercial and industrial markets. Some firms already specialize in helping companies in this sector determine the right drone solutions for their needs and launch fleets that are controlled by customized algorithms or easy-to-use cloud-based flying and data management software. Human pilots will be gradually phased out as a full range of inspection and information-gathering procedures become automated all the way up to and beyond the level of data analysis. More frequent data readings should allow for further refinement of information-gathering mechanisms and more thorough observations over time.

The use of commercial drones in the oil and gas industry at present is laying the foundation for a future in which companies in this sector are capable of affordably taking the proactive steps necessary to prevent leaks and other adverse or anomalous events that can lead to environmental disasters on land or at sea. Drones greatly facilitate the monitoring and maintenance processes and are capable of offering support for emergency response and containment initiatives. Taken together, all of these capacities help to make on-shore or offshore platforms, pipelines, and other facilities safer for human workers by allowing for the condition of vital infrastructure to be closely monitored in addition to changing conditions.

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Reduce Risk and Raise Profits

Regardless of whether the drones that an oil and gas company uses are manual or automated, they are still a significant step toward safer operations. It is likely that drone monitoring and inspection will become standard operating procedure in this and many other industries given the amount of money that can be saved through preventative maintenance and reduction of many risks formerly posed to human workers. Drones are likely to find their most practical uses in this type of highly-specialized large-scale imaging and data gathering work.

The benefits of reduced risks and costs are perhaps most pronounced for oil and gas operations. According to a study undertaken by the UK oil and gas firm Fircroft, drone inspections can be up to 85% faster and cheaper than standard oil platform inspection techniques. It is also the case that substantial savings are achieved by the simple fact that a platform or rig does not need to be shut down prior to drone inspection as it would need to be for human inspectors relying on precarious methods such as ropes and scaffolding. Another company involved in oil and gas applications has found that using drones for flare stack inspections can result in more than one million dollars in recovered production costs. The ability to safely continue operations during inspections can pave the way to more regular inspections and safer operations.

Drones are the most technologically-adept and efficient method for monitoring the status of oil and gas equipment and infrastructure at every part of the extraction and refining process. As drones become more common in this industry and for a wide variety of other commercial and industrial applications, it will lead the way to a safer and more productive environment for resource extraction and refinement.

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