In recent years, drones have become a go-to technology in multiple industries, offering huge benefits for a range of applications that human operators have traditionally performed. This article will provide an overview of the use of drones in oil and gas pipeline monitoring.
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The Rise of Drones in Industry
There has been a significant change in technological innovation over the past few decades as industry evolves to meet the ever-changing challenges of the 21st century. Many new technologies have emerged, such as AI, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)- connected devices, robots, and drones.
Drones are proving their worth for multiple industries, possessing enhanced flexibility and observational capabilities not found in more conventional technologies. Increasingly, drones are being used in dangerous and project-critical applications that would have traditionally been the purview of human operators.
Drones benefit from advanced sensing and imaging methods for diverse applications and can be monitored remotely to improve safety and efficiency. Additionally, drones can be operated around the clock in nearly all environments and types of weather.
In many companies, drones are being increasingly utilized to perform prognostic upkeep of vital infrastructure and equipment and critical safety assessments. Failures and damage can be detected earlier without the need for on-site intervention by workers.
Conventional Pipeline Monitoring and Inspection
The energy industry uses multiple assets which must be constantly monitored and inspected for potential issues. Pipelines are one such asset. Used to deliver oil and natural gas, pipelines can span several miles through remote and inaccessible areas.
The remoteness of these areas makes monitoring them extremely difficult. Inadequate road infrastructure, especially in areas such as mountainous regions and the frozen tundra, make accessing these locations especially problematic for engineers and companies.
Another key challenge with conventional monitoring is the time it takes to perform a full inspection. Engineers and operators must travel to the site, assess the asset, review data, and move on to the next location. This significantly increases the associated costs of inspection and monitoring.
Humans can only operate in a window that spans a few hours due to the need for things such as sleep, eating, and the time it takes to travel between assets. This means that monitoring can only be conducted for an extremely limited time.
Aside from the time needed for inspection, there is the critical issue of safety for operators. Many pipelines are located in dangerous environments and high terrains. Workers need to set up scaffolding or use ropes; if something goes wrong, it can have fatal consequences. Despite regulation, safety concerns persist in the industry.
The Benefits of Drones
Looking at the above issues, it is clear that the oil and gas industry can benefit from the use of technologies such as drones to monitor pipelines. Critical issues such as leaks, damage, and sabotage can be detected in a fraction of the time that conventional methods would take.
First of all, drones vastly improve safety and reduce the instance of fatal incidents. Drones can be launched from a safe location and flown to the asset, negating the need for ropes and scaffolding. Inspections can be monitored remotely, potentially miles from the inspection site.
Secondly, set-up time is minimized. Operators do not need to travel between each asset and location and are able to inspect multiple points in a single operation without the need for the drone to return to base. Data can be analyzed in real-time using the drone’s advanced imaging and sensing equipment.
Heavy costs, such as helicopters, are also reduced by using drones. Drones are much cheaper than helicopters, requiring no fuel, pilots, and minimal maintenance. Occasionally, they will need to return to base to recharge, but this time is significantly less than the time needed to refuel a helicopter.
Helicopters also need to refuel and be maintained at heliports and specific locations, which reduces their versatility for pipeline monitoring, especially in remote areas where there may not be the necessary infrastructure for several miles. A drone can be recharged anywhere the operator is.
Another key benefit of drone use for this critical purpose is to do with data gathering capabilities. Automated workflows provide operators with turnkey data and analytics, simplifying the process and backing it up with real-time data, aiding decision-making. Cloud-based solutions can be integrated into drones.
Drones can be programmed to follow pre-planned flight patterns, significantly augmenting the inspection process. By following its routine, the drone can capture and store data, which can be assessed by engineers and reveal problem areas that can be flagged for detailed inspection.
A final benefit of drones for pipeline asset monitoring is the ability to scale operations. Pipelines can be many kilometers long, making it nearly impossible to conduct consistent manual inspections. Multiple drones can be deployed at once, inspecting multiple locations simultaneously.
Drones have revolutionized multiple industries, with several suppliers entering the market over recent years. Several innovative technologies have been integrated into drones, such as advanced imaging and sensing techniques, enhancing their abilities to gather real-time data on crucial assets such as pipelines.
Due to the scale and critical nature of pipeline monitoring, oil and gas companies have increasingly turned to the use of drones, leveraging benefits such as time savings, cost-efficiency, better safety for workers, enhanced data-gathering capabilities, and the ability to scale operations far beyond conventional capabilities.
Drones are just one example of the many revolutionary technologies that are changing the face of the oil and gas industry as it evolves to meet new demands. Doubtlessly, the use of drones for critical applications such as asset monitoring and inspection will increase in the coming years.
References and Further Reading
Copas (2021) How Are Drones Used in the Oil and Gas Industry? [Online] copas.org. Available at: https://copas.org/how-are-drones-used-in-the-oil-and-gas-industry/
Flytnow (2022) Revolutionizing the Oil and Gas Industry Using Nested Drone Systems for BVLOS Pipeline Inspections [Online] flytnow.com. Available at: https://www.flytnow.com/blog/bvlos-pipeline-inspection-using-nested-drone-system
Karpowicz, J (2019) How are drones being used for pipeline inspections? [Online] commercialuavnews.com. Available at: https://www.commercialuavnews.com/surveying/drones-pipeline-inspections-solspec