Panel: UAS can address oil and gas industry safety issues

By Patrick C. Miller | May 14, 2015

The statistics paint a grim picture of the risks involved in using manned aircraft to inspect oil and gas pipelines.

Speaking on a panel at Unmanned Systems 2015 in Atlanta last week, Joseph Bernard, managing director of Bernard Microsystems Ltd. in London, noted that for every million flight hours, the death rate for commercial airlines is .9 while the death rate for pipeline inspections in the oil and gas industry is 43.6.

“When I send an employee out to fly, I’m knowingly putting someone in the company at risk,” Bernard says. “The way to reduce that is essentially to start using unmanned aircraft. You’re not reducing the number of staff. You’re simply relocating the pilot from the low-flying aircraft to a ground station.”

Bernard was one of five speakers on a panel at the annual conference and trade show hosted by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). They discussed emerging commercial markets for unmanned aerial systems in the oil and gas industry.

Bernard, who has worked with Shell, Statoil and BP to develop UAS, said the three main factors driving the design and use of the systems by industry are the safety of operations, the accuracy of data and the cost of operations.

“Make sure it’s safe; otherwise, you’re going to go nowhere,” he explained. “Shell wants to bring the cost down five percent every year.”

Currently, UAS operations are not only less expensive than operating manned aircraft, but manned aircraft expenses have plateaued while the cost of flying unmanned aircraft are continuing to decline, Bernard said.

Balajee Kannan, senior scientist with GE Global Research, said the expense of UAS equipment is a critical factor for the company’s oil and gas customers.

“Stop thinking of the world as cost-plus and start thinking of the world as value-minus,” he advised UAS manufactures in attendance. “Think of what’s the most important value for the customer, and bring it down from there. There’s a price point that the military can afford that we can’t and our customers can’t.”

Kannan also agreed with Bernard that industry should be using UAS to improve safety and lower costs.

“We still have humans doing the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks,” he said. “There’s no reason why humans should be doing those tasks. They’re great at doing some things, but not so great at doing other things. The focus on what we do as humans should be on fixing problems, not finding them.”

David Phillips, vice president of small and medium-endurance UAS for Textron Systems Unmanned Systems, provided perspective from a company that’s manufactured and used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the military and is now adapting them to civilian use for the oil and gas industry.

“We’re doing a lot of what the FAA is going to expect some day,” he noted. “From a reliability standpoint, we understand how safe you have to be.”

Phillips said Textron has learned some important lessons from its experience in developing UAS for civil and military use.

“Dealing with the military is really not different than dealing with the oil and gas industry,” he said. “We sold our system into the oil and gas industry. We’ve operated our system on a contractor operated fee-for-service nature in the oil and gas industry. Those customers are really looking for the same thing: They want their system to be reliable. It better be reliable or it costs you money.”

The conditions under which the oil and gas industry operates create an opportunity for expanded use of UAS, according to Dave Truch, information technology and services director for BP.

“We’re working in environments that are very harsh and rugged, both geopolitically and climate wise,” he said. “They’re challenging, rough and isolated, and we send humans out to work in those environments to do some extremely mundane things, like inspect, gather data, collect things and do some minor maintenance.”

Truch said that because of the nature of the industry—handling flammable gas and liquids under pressure—it’s important that any UAS BP uses is certified.

“We are a company that will not use something that hasn’t been approved,” he stressed. “Not only are we highly regulated, but we want to insure that people are safe. We want to be able to bid out to people and know that the people we’re bidding out to have met certain certification qualifications as part of that bidding process.”

On the research side, Keith Cunningham, associate director of research and development at the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, discussed a project with BP authorized by the FAA and other UAS R&D.

“One of the things we’re researching right now is how we do some persistent surveillance of this critical infrastructure,” he said. “Part of that is beyond line-of-sight missions. How do we build a command-and-control network so that the UAS can fly that 800-mile length of the pipeline?”

The university is also using UAS technology to assist government agencies in developing policy and regulations, as well as assisting industry in turning data into information that can be readily used in making decisions, Cunningham said.

“It’s not just the flying robot or the camera,” he noted. “It’s this value chain that’s being created.”