Drones in service: Oilfield transformation from above

By Patrick C. Miller | October 25, 2017

Some of the biggest names in aviation are looking at the U.S. oil and gas industry as a prime market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology, which they say can reduce costs, improve safety and increase the availability of key assets. 

While the industry is already employing small UAS flying below 400 feet and within line of sight for inspections and data collection, the true measure of what’s possible will occur when larger unmanned aircraft are unleashed to soar thousands of feet up, operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) while flying missions autonomously using the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

UAS missions suited for the oil and gas industry include the inspection of infrastructure and other assets, surveying, security and surveillance, equipment inventory, road safety, fugitive emissions and leak detection, well site reclamation, damage assessment following storms and pipeline monitoring, among others.

The potential of UAS was recognized by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum who earlier this year challenged his state’s oil and gas industry to consider the technology as a means of helping to achieve a goal of zero pipeline spills. The incentive is to avoid a repeat of the sometimes-violent and costly demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports Bakken crude from North Dakota to Gulf Coast markets.

Insitu’s Drones Down Under
Insitu Inc., the unmanned aircraft subsidiary of the Boeing Co., is already demonstrating what can be accomplished with UAS in Australia by flying its medium-sized fixed-wing ScanEagle for the Queensland Gas Co., a business owned by Shell. Among the benefits Insitu cites are a 20 percent reduction in operating costs and reducing unnecessary driving by an average of 500,000 miles per year.

Having the UAS in the air seven hours a day for four days a week, the ScanEagle inspects an average of 100 wells per day while flying at altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 feet.

“We can read a gauge on a particular tank that has been designed for someone to look at it from a couple feet away,” says Vincent Vidal, Insitu’s director of commercial solutions. “It’s really part of Shell’s operations now.”
In fact, Insitu believes that its Australian experience could directly transfer to a U.S. shale play such as North Dakota’s Bakken formation.

“The reason that we’re interested in North Dakota is that there’s a multiple convergence of factors that makes it the right place to develop a UAS operation,” Vidal says. He lists the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences academic involvement in UAS, testing and training facilities in the state, strong political support and Grand Forks Air Force Base, which has an all-UAS mission flying the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk.

“When you look at oil and gas operations—on the back end—Australia and North Dakota are quite similar in their method of extraction and distribution,” Vidal explains. “In Australia, they’re using fracking methodology to extract the oil and the gas. It’s obviously a controlled upstream market. They have multiple wellheads that are not separated by a great distance, so there’s a concentration of gas and oil infrastructure in pipelines, compressor stations, wellheads and the like. That makes it quite an interesting basin to be monitored.”

From Military To Civilian
The unmanned systems branch of Textron Systems—a major defense contractor that also manufactures Cessna, Beechcraft, Bell Helicopters and Hawker civil aircraft—has been flying its Aerosonde UAS for oil and gas operations for the past five years in the Middle East. The company has also done work in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields. Textron Systems is currently testing a vertical takeoff and landing version of the Aerosonde that can be transported in a single pickup with a crew and ground control station.

“All the testing we’ve done, we’ve kept in mind flying pipelines with a small footprint,” says Dennis Racine, senior director of civil and commercial for Textron Systems. “You show up and fly your project with a crew—you’re in, you’re out. That vehicle, when it’s completed and ready for prime time in early 2018, will certainly be targeted toward oil and gas.”

Racine notes that because of Textron’s diversity, its unmanned systems division can call on the company’s expertise in civil aviation and geospatial solutions—which includes advanced analytics and visualization—as well as training facilities and command and control technologies for ground stations.

“We have Textron Support Solutions, which is a sister company,” Racine relates. “Support solutions is an entire organization made up of pilots and maintainers. I have the ability to put together a really good team with a lot of good products to support the customers’ challenges.
“We’re constantly working on new vehicles and new capabilities,” he adds. “I think unmanned aircraft are going to be a great tool for the oil and gas industry. We’ve positioned ourselves to be ready to work in that space.”

Insitu and Textron Systems started flying their UAS for U.S. military operations and both have logged more than a million hours of unmanned flight time. As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) slowly moves toward allowing commercial BVLOS operations for UAS in the national airspace, the companies are pursuing strategies to transition into the world of civilian business. The oil and gas industry is a market in which they see great potential and opportunity.

“In terms of capabilities, there are actually more similarities than differences between the commercial and military markets,” Vidal notes. “For commercial customers, we are targeting large corporations, major companies. They’ve got the same standards and expectations in terms of reliability of systems and platforms being dependable every day.”

The desire to work with companies highly experienced in UAS flight operations and an understanding of the military’s need for safety and security are also compatible with the needs of business, according to Vidal.

Airbus Leverages Satellites and UAS
European aviation giant Airbus entered the UAS market earlier this year by forming Airbus Aerial, headquartered in Atlanta and headed by CEO Jesse Kallman, a 13-year veteran of the unmanned aircraft field. Known for its commercial airliners, helicopters and military aircraft, Kallman says some expected Airbus to get into the drone manufacturing business, but he viewed the opportunity differently.

“I saw that Airbus already had the world’s largest satellite imaging business and was already working with companies all over the world to provide high-quality and high-resolution satellite imagery,” he explains. “Drones are just an additional layer in all of that. What Airbus Aerial brings together is satellite imaging, drone imaging and analysis into more of a data source agnostic service so that large organizations—for example an oil and gas company—that may want to survey all of Texas. Drones or manned aircraft are used to get those finer layers of detail and combine it with some interesting analytics.” 

Beyond providing an eye in the sky to collect imagery and data for analysis, a group of companies under the General Electric umbrella is developing UAS and robotics technology that a few decades ago might have been in the realm of science fiction. Avitas Systems—a GE Ventures company—and NVIDIA—best known for its personal computer graphic processing units—have formed a partnership that will enable fleets of drones to not only fly missions autonomously, but also to learn and become smarter each time they fly.

Machine learning—combined with artificial intelligence and powerful computing systems in the field—will enable drones to become increasingly better at spotting cracks and corrosion during inspections. This helps oil and gas companies become more flexible in scheduling inspections and making better decisions about whether equipment needs to be shut down for maintenance. 

GE’s Transforming Solution
“Essentially, we are here to transform the way things are done in the inspections space,” says Kishore Sundararajan, president of engineering and product management with Baker Hughes, a GE company (BHGE). “Our goal is to make inspections faster, cheaper, flexible and more reliable.”

Sundararajan, who’s also a member of Avitas Systems board of directors, uses the example of a tank farm inspection to demonstrate how UAS will transform the way inspections are conducted. 

“Typically, what happens in a tank farm is that there’s a crew working on corrosion inspection,” he says. “There’s another crew checking on the levels of the tanks to make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be. There’s another crew that looks at the infrastructure around the tank farm. What’s going on with the footings of the foundations? Is there soil erosion?”

BHGE can accomplish all three of these tasks with in one flight with on-demand inspections using a drone equipped with a high-resolution electro-optical camera, a thermal camera and a light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensor.

As Sundararajan explains, “I run the flight and come back with a 3D model of the tank farm. Now I can compare the 3D model with the last inspection and see that soil has eroded since then. Using the thermal and the LIDAR sensors combined, I can look at temperature differences in the tanks and know what the level of the fluid in the tank is because the surface wall is a different temperature from the fluid. The third thing I do is I check for corrosion and cracks. This is the way the industry is going to change—to combine these three things together to become one single activity.”

Avitas uses NVIDIA’s DGX Systems and supporting software not only to automate the flight paths of UAS doing the inspections, but also to fuse the data gathered from other sensors and industrial assets. Based on analysis of the fused data, algorithms can detect flaws, predict problems and determine which equipment is most at risk.

“Here’s the difference with GE,” Sundararajan says. “I can run a drone autonomously. I need a set of pilots that manage a fleet of drones—not one pilot per drone. We use flight management systems to automate the drone flight. The drones decide the flight paths themselves, knowing what they will inspect.”

Regulatory Bumps In The UAS Road
As attractive as UAS technology appears and as many benefits as it offers to the oil and gas industry, the only drones the FAA currently allows to fly commercially must weigh less than 55 pounds. They’re restricted to operations below 400 feet and must remain within the pilot’s line of sight, which greatly limits the value of UAS to industry.

“Through GE Aviation, we have been doing commercial flight management for a number of years,” Sundararajan relates. “A good proportion of the world’s aircraft that take off and land are supported with the GE flight management system.

“We can get all this done, but we’re still sitting with the FAA working on permitting beyond-line-of-sight drones for operators like GE and the oil companies,” Sundararajan continues. “That’s the limitation today. It’s not that drones aren’t available. It’s not that the technology is not available. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it. The FAA needs to move on the regulation.”

Vidal points out that in Australia, Insitu’s ScanEagle is authorized to operate in commercial airspace day and night under the control of a radar system developed by Boeing Phantom Works. “We are fully integrated into the airspace,” he says. “We fly like everybody else. There’s no distinction between unmanned and manned aircraft.”

In the U.S., however, there’s more work to be done on the regulatory side before UAS are safely integrated into the national airspace and used to their full advantage by the oil and gas industry.

“Since we have a pretty robust relationship with FAA, we can fly beyond line of sight on an exemption basis,” Sundararajan says. “We can go through the process of applying by exemption, but that’s not the way we can operate a business.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, North American Shale magazine
701-738-4923
pmiller@bbiinternational.com