***This article was written by Oceaneering's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Manager, Todd Chase. It originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Pipeline Oil & Gas Magazine. You can view the original HERE.
The safety and efficiency of oil and gas operations can be greatly improved through the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for applications including infrastructure and maintenance inspection, pipeline routing, security, emergency response, and compliance with environmental and other regulations. The value of UAS programs is optimized when they are supported by all necessary processes, procedures and management systems, and can augment and improve the safety of established operations.
There are many ways that UAS solutions can take people out of harm's way while refining and augmenting something they were already doing on land, water and offshore. On land, applications include assessing road deterioration, wildlife monitoring, and gathering geographic information system (GIS) data for tasks including 3D modeling, topography studies, and watershed and mining analyses. Offshore, applications include inspecting FPSO bridges, flare stacks and the insides of tanks and boilers, and detecting process changes.
UAS programs are particularly valuable in pipeline applications. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the U.S., alone, has more than 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline. Much of it is located in rugged terrain that is difficult to access. It is much faster, safer and more efficient to use UAS programs for inspecting this infrastructure, monitoring its security, performing right-of-way analysis for environmental and regulatory compliance, and executing numerous emergency response programs and security initiatives. Another important UAS application here is pipeline construction, including performing UAV surveys during the routing process.
A key decision when implementing a UAS program is whether to subcontract services from a third-party provider or build and deploy a solution internally. Considerations include data management needs, program size and scope, cost and control trade-offs, and special risks or other requirements. Subcontracting UAS programs to a third-party service provider better positions organizations to keep up with dynamic industry developments. Other organizations prefer to maximize control over their data collection by building a solution in-house, including allocating the resources necessary to keep up with technology and safety guidelines developments, and educating themselves about best practices related to equipment and pilot selection. Organizations including International Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP), Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC), and Oil & Gas UK have established industry guidelines in there areas.
There are a wide variety of available unmanned aircraft, but not all are suited to the special demands of oil and gas applications. At the same time, there is no inherently safe unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) so redundancies in flight control and navigation systems are also essential if a UAS program is to deliver the highest levels of safety, efficiency, and reliability.
While UAS selection is important, a focus on people, training, equipment, procedures and experience is equally, if not more, essential. The Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference has helped to focus attention on safety best practices, facilitating development of today's IOGP recommendations for safe UAS operation - a living document that is the first to provide high-level guidance for industry wide UAS recommended practices.
In addition to following HSAC/IOGP guidance, UAS program operators are expected to have their own manuals and standard procedures for optimizing risk control and safety management. Many energy companies have created and regularly audit very detailed requirements for how their drones are incorporated into a wide range of processes, consistent with recommended industry practices and guidance mentioned above. The UAS operator should also be CAA/FAA-approved, and have a well-defined safety management system in place, observe best practices for facility and environment training, and invest in the adequate insurance coverage for all subcontracted work. Other key UAS elements include a carefully managed maintenance plan and comprehensive competency-based training programs and mentoring.
UAS programs provide numerous advantages over alternative data-gathering approaches, across a variety of pipeline and other applications. Operators can maximize the benefits of these programs by focusing on industry-best practices for operational excellence.