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Data From Above: The Advantages of Unmanned Aircraft

Photo courtesy of Cyberhawk.
Cyberhawk’s rotor-propelled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can reach the top of a 30-story flare stack in less than a minute. Oil and gas companies are using UAV technology to carry out safer and more efficient inspections and other observation-based operations on upstream oil and gas facilities.

Making them fly was the easy part. Making them useful was the next challenge. And now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being put to the test to determine where they are the most applicable to the oil and gas industry. Companies and university researchers developing these “flying computers” believe that their sector is ready to rapidly expand, because of recent technological advancements and legislation that will open up the unmanned skies in the industry’s largest potential market by 2015: the United States.

UAVs are already being used by some oil and gas companies to inspect flare stacks and track migrating wildlife and ice floes in the Arctic. In the near future, UAVs will be used as important tools to respond to oil spills and pipeline monitoring, and in offshore installation and decommissioning operations.

A few years ago, the militaries of the world held a virtual monopoly on the application of UAV technology, and UAVs available to the private sector were little more than eyes in the sky with limited functionality. Today, commercial UAVs are the benefactors of miniaturized electronics, partly thanks to the smartphone industry and advanced software programs specifically designed to make sense of the different types of data that can be gathered while flying. Equipped with lasers, high-definition cameras, thermal imaging systems that can “see” at night, and an array of other sensors, advocates of UAVs claim they are not simply cheaper alternatives to fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, but in many ways are more capable and, without question, safer to operate.

Last fall, BP completed an experimental flight in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, using a quadrotor UAV developed by Canadian-based Aeryon Labs. Quadrotor UAVs, also called quadcopters, use four rotors to lift and move the aircraft and are known for their maneuverability. At the time, US authorities were only issuing flight certificates to determine the airworthiness of UAVs without allowing commercial operations. BP completed the test run to determine how Aeryon’s UAV could inspect oilfield equipment and pipelines to assess maintenance needs.

The Aeryon Scout, a 3-lb backpack-sized UAV capable of carrying out 20-min reconnaissance flights, has been used on every continent, except Antarctica, and was used by Libyan rebels in support of their march on Tripoli in 2011. Aeryon said it makes flying UAVs as easy as possible by integrating airborne and satellite maps into the navigation system, which is installed on a touch-screen tablet. “We’ve built a system that flies itself and the operator just tells it where to go,” Dave Kroetsch, cofounder and president of Aeryon, said. “Anyone can pilot it and it is very easy to use. Simply touch and guide.”

An upgrade to the Scout, the SkyRanger, is twice as capable with a flight time of up to 50 min and comes equipped with a high-definition camera instead of a standard-definition camera. Electronics manufacturers have been able to shrink the size of critical components, including thermal sensors and imaging systems, thus giving UAV companies more flexibility. “Things are getting smaller, which is giving us the ability to fly longer,” Kroetsch said, noting that, “while there is a lot of interesting experimentation going on, there are not big rollouts in (the oil and gas) industry quite yet.”

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Data From Above: The Advantages of Unmanned Aircraft

Trent Jacobs, JPT Senior Technology Writer

01 October 2013

Volume: 65 | Issue: 10

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