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Man versus Drone

A look at the future of drones in the energy industry

· Energy Technology,Energy,Drone,Automation

Man versus Drone

A look at the future of drones in the energy industry

The energy industry is capital intensive, with high costs associated with offshore exploration and operations as well as maintenance and inspection. The advent of drones can help energy companies improve their operating margins; particularly, drones will be able to reduce equipment management and maintenance expenses by cutting human labor and transportation expenses while increasing efficiency.

There are three main ways in which drones can help oil and gas companies cut cost:

Upstream (surveying, mining and manufacturing)

First, drones equipped with high resolution cameras can be used to isolate potential leaks in oil rigs. Furthermore, drones can be used to ensure that equipment is in compliance with regulation. This will drastically lower the current and costly hands-on inspections, which typically require facilities to be shut down for several days. Currently, not only do these surveys require facilities to be shut down, they also entail the use of expensive cranes, scaffolds, helicopters, and staff transport to remote facilities, all of which are costs that will essentially disappear as drones start to prove themselves just as reliable.

These surveys also come at great risk to personnel; inspectors use ropes and harnesses to reach hard-to-access areas and are often exposed to harmful chemicals. By doing away with human intervention, drones help cut down on expensive labor and eliminate costly liabilities: the insurance of personnel who perform high-risk tasks.

Second, drones can improve detection of oil spills. Equipped with special sensors, drones can identify the size of oil spills and the speed at which they spread, enabling response vessels to reach the exact location of the spill and take rapid action to contain it. In the aftermath of hurricanes and other natural disasters, drones can help perform search-and-rescue missions and assess infrastructure damage with speed, accuracy, and efficiency that human labor simply cannot match.

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Finally, drones can help companies cut their cost of operations by improving security. They can provide efficient and low cost monitoring of offshore infrastructures, particularly in remote areas where the risk of piracy is higher. Moreover, thanks to optical sensors, drones can be used to identify gas emissions and leaks that can be a serious health hazard to personnel.

Midstream (storage, transportation)

Oil and gas companies spend an estimated $50 billion a year globally to monitor pipelines. Drones will make this process less expensive and generally more efficient. Furthermore, aerial inspection and data gathering using drones enables early detection of structural damage to the pipelines. Drones can fly close to particular structures and provide operators with high-definition still-images and videos. Also equipped with the ability to identify corrosion and heat spots, they can identify potential gas and oil leaks before they even happen. This allows for disaster aversion as well as planning of repair or maintenance work. For instance, a drone can check a 3-kilometer pipeline in 30 minutes, a task that used to take 7 days, thus generating tremendous savings and increased efficiency.

Downstream (Refineries, retail)

Drones can also be used to monitor refineries. Inspecting flame stacks, which are used to burn off unusable waste gas, is a process that carries many risks when performed by personnel. It is also costly, as it requires stacks to be shut down. Using drones equipped with thermal cameras can significantly cut down the cost of inspecting flare stacks by eliminating the need for personnel to climb the stacks and to shut them down.

The use of drones is marking a significant shift in the way oil and gas companies conduct maintenance and inspections. By providing exhaustive, detailed data collection and surveillance, drones can help identify infrastructure damage and leakage risks quickly and efficiently. They enable companies to generate significant savings on staff expense, which they can pass on to stakeholders or invest in development and exploration.

It is important to note that advances in drone technology are being accompanied by advances in the ability to collect and use big data across multiple industries, from finance to retail. The use of big data is made possible by two things: first, a decline in data storage expense, and second, a decline in the cost of computing power. Without those trends, oil companies would not be able to use drone technology while also reducing their operating cost by such an aggressive amount.

Written by Jeremy Kattan, Edited by Rachel Weissman & Alexander Fleiss