HomeAerial inspectors monitoring oil fields — more companies turning to drones for surveillance
At a South Texas ranch, a drone mounted with cameras flew above and around a flare stack that burned natural gas.
Live, high-definition images were transmitted back to the ground, where company officials watched video of the flare stack as it was operating, asking that the drone move this way or that to get a better image or different angle.
It’s a scene that played out recently, and it may become more common. Though drones are in their commercial infancy, their use in the oil field is on the increase.
In the case of the South Texas flare stack, a drone from San Antonio-based Midstream Integrity Services helped a client check its flare stack while avoiding a shutdown of equipment. “They could see what they needed to order to replace in the future,” said Landon Phillips, program manager for unmanned aerial systems at Midstream Integrity Services. “The image is very stable, and we can look straight down into equipment while it’s operating.”
Jerry Hendrix, executive director of the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence & Innovation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said Texas is a natural fit for drone use and research, and it’s not just the oil industry looking at how to use drones. Hundreds of companies and industries are looking into drones for inspection and monitoring of things such as railroad tracks, bridges, wind turbines, utility lines or agricultural fields. Drones can monitor red tide on the coastline, or might be used by first responders after a natural disaster such as a hurricane.
“There’s the potential for the use of UAS to spot oil spills and things of that nature,” Hendrix said. “There’s a lot of tremendous applications of UAS.”
For the oil and gas industry, Joe Henry of Camber Corp., which works with A&M-Corpus Christi’s UAS center, said the facilities best suited for drone use — with obvious cost and safety benefits — are industrial plants. Some facilities shut down as many as 26 times per year for inspections, he said, each time building and then tearing down scaffolding at great expense.
“Just imagine reducing the cost of raising scaffolding and tearing down scaffolding and having to shut the plant down for those inspections,” Henry said.
The idea of inspecting and monitoring with drones is new, though Henry noted that companies will look at drones as a way to save money. “None of this is defined yet,” Henry said. “You can look at the cost of oil. They’re looking at how to reduce cost and let money flow into the bottom line.”For now, drones are not allowed to operate beyond the line of sight, about 1 mile usually, Phillips said, and their use requires a pilot and a visual observer.