Advanced Unmanned Aircraft Operations – The Next Generation of Oil & Gas Inspections

By Courtney Albers, Director of Product Management, Enterprise Solutions • June 4, 2020

Whether detecting pin-hole leaks or corrosion, inspecting the integrity of flare stacks or monitoring pipelines, critical oil & gas infrastructure inspections today are performed by foot, helicopter, and Unmanned Aircraft (UA), more commonly known as drones. Of these three approaches, UA aerial inspections provide the greatest productivity and safety impact because they can acquire more accurate digital and thermal imagery quickly, be deployed to hazardous areas, and can identify safety issues not seen by the human eye.

In the upstream or exploration phases, aerial sensors can detect naturally occurring methane seeps or serpentine sweeps. Midstream, inspection and monitoring of hard to reach assets by UA can replace rope-access and scaffolding and can easily be scheduled as frequently as needed. Downstream, UAs can detect corrosion in pipelines and early signs of leaks that may be invisible to the human eye. More importantly, aerial inspections help reduce industry fatalities and injuries as they will move people from oft dangerous ‘field’ jobs into automation management, operations and data analysis. Furthermore, aerial solutions can help identify suspicious and unauthorized activity around critical infrastructure.

And yet, current UA inspections are not performing at optimum efficiency. Today, oil-well and pipeline UA inspections occur under FAA regulations known as ‘14 CFR Subchapter F, Part 107’ rules. Under these regulations, drone operations must be conducted using at least one drone per pilot. The drone can be flown manually by the pilot using a remote controller or automatically using some form of automatic flight control system flying a pre-planned flight plan. The UA remains within the line of sight of the pilot so that control of the vehicle can be maintained should issues arise with the vehicle.


Advanced UA operations – the next generation of UA inspections

While UAs are already delivering quality and quantity benefits, true optimization comes in the form of Advanced Operations – Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), One-to-Many, Flight over Non-Participants, and Night Operations. These Advanced Operations give UA inspection programs new functionality, capabilities and the freedom to expand inspections.