Drones - Oil & Gas Assets are not Remote Anymore

Dr Arunkumar Ranganathan
AVP & Head DCG,
Energy Utilities & Services, Infosys Ltd
Drones have given the engineers the technologists to explore the unexplored. We no longer need to risk human life or need to depend on prediction without unsupported data to arrive at critical decisions.

Drones - Most commonly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Systems. They are the subset of Robots with Unmanned flight capabilities. They can fly autonomously, controlled by embedded software or can be remotely operated by controller on the ground. Drones have given the engineers the technologists to explore the unexplored. We no longer need to risk human life or need to depend on prediction without unsupported data to arrive at critical decisions. Drones offer inexpensive visibility without risking human safety performing tasks ranging from surreal (ex: Volcano Monitoring, Oil & Gas Pipeline inspection during accidents Integrating Drones with IoT sensors have elevated the effectiveness and now Drones can play a critical role in Remote sensing, visibility, critical data acquisition.

Why Drones

Drone bring in multiple advantages and some of the key advantages are
Remote Access: They have the ability to reach locations where humans cannot. Challenges could be limited space, rough terrain, and hostile environment or associated risks

Frequency: They are portable and can be used for frequent inspections without interfering with operations.

Safety: By programming the flight path along the target, the operator can easily and safely inspect the target area or infrastructure from a safe distance

Mobility: Speed, ease of use and efficiency of drones will provide the oil and gas companies with the opportunity to collect data at large scale and analyze it in real time

Cost: Drones replace on the field crews, Helicopters and other transport mode, thereby bringing down inspection costs drastically.

Oil & Gas and Drones

Oil & Gas industry has begun its tryst with Drones primarily to inspect the Assets. One of the French Oil Major has piloted Asset Inspection using Drones, replacing the traditional manned inspections. In the search for hydrocarbons, drones are becoming a highly useful resource, cheaper than helicopters or light aircraft to map the seabed and other hard to reach locations. Researchers from the CIPR (Centre for Integrated Petroleum Research) of the University of Bergen in Norway are already using unmanned aerial vehicles carrying laser scanners to create 3-D maps of the terrain, providing highly valuable information for the exploration of new fields. UAVs are helping a large Europe based Operators exploration team to produce cost -effective 3D models of onshore outcrops in Azerbaijan.

The combined use of drones and autonomous underwater or terrestrial vehicles is another field being extensively developed. The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPTC) is leading the European project Urready4Os, Underwater Robotics ready for Oil Spills, to create a joint fleet of drones and underwater vehicles so as to increase the safety of installations, while terrestrial robots similar to those used on space missions could serve to supervise industrial installations or pipelines . Some trials are being done using Unmanned Arial Vehicles to deduct leaks from long Pipeline installations.

Asset Monitoring using Drones

Global technology major has estimated the amount of inspection time can be cut by half by using drones and other robots c, depending on the assets being inspected. Challenges in the inspection process through conventional means like for example: Flare Stacks require regular inspections for regulatory and operational purposes, this requires inspectors to get close enough to discover what are often tiny traces of wear that can lead to gas leaks and performance issues with related systems. It's a dangerous, time-consuming and ultimately expensive task. These assets can be inspected only when it cools down after the asset and related systems are shut down, this process is slow and often involving scaffolding, rope inspection teams and visual analysis. Use of Drones will address all these issues.
  • The data from the drone after the flight data capture is used to create a 3D model of the asset and changes over time through subsequent inspec tions are tracked. For example, they can see if a piece of metal is star ting to expand or buckle or if a miniscule crack is growing.
  • Robotic inspections most of the instances does not inter fere with operations and hence shut down requirements are minimized. This facilitates more frequent monitoring, leading to earlier detection of potential problems.
  • Since the inspection information is recorded and archived, they can be a lot more insightful and thorough. Technology facilitates multiple stake holders to perform inspection remotely at the same time.
Other areas where Drones can play significant part in asset Inspection are
Oil Refinery facilities & Storage tank inspections:
  • Inspections can be performed simultaneously collecting and delivering both digital photography and thermal imagery remotely
  • Identifying water accumulation and surrounding environment that are potentially susceptible to rust and corrosion.
  • Monthly, Annual and 5 yearly Visual inspections of tanks are mandated. Drones are usually able to collect drone inspections data from across an entire tank farm in few hours’ time.
Chimney Inspections
  • Drones minimize conventional ways of using ropes and scaffolding to identify cracks and anomalies.
  • Inspecting safety railings and stairs on chimneys flare stacks and tanks before crews carry out maintenance work.
Drilling Facilities inspection:
  • Highly-sensitive Gas sensors can deduct gas accumulation and leakages while drilling gaseous wells.
  • Periodic survey to deduct anomalies can be conducted on the rig and while flaring gas.
  • Drones can be used to continuously record impact on environment, through periodic data collection, compare current deviation. The data can be used for immediate remedial actions.
Pipeline inspections:

Pipeline systems are often located underground or run for many kilometers where access roads are restricted, the surrounding nature is not attained and access to pipelines is incredibly difficult or impossible. Reliability of the pipelines suffers due to poor design, defective material or construction or from hostile conditions when in the operation. The damage can be reflected as weakening of the cladding on the external insulation and leaks of heating energy, as well as breaks in the piping and the loss of the transported medium. The internal corrosion results in the wear on the thickness during the transport of aggressive liquids or mechanical stressing in the case of the transport of non-homogeneous materials with solid particles.

To resolve the problem of inspecting long-distance pipelines, an elegant and simple solution is available at first sight. UAV with a camera record and display the capture in real time by flying above the entire pipeline, a thermal camera can detect such defects and record the thermal radiation of objects. The difference to the surface of the pipeline and the experience of the operator in monitoring such variations can reveal hidden defects. It is easy to identify where the insulation is damaged and heat losses occur (during the transport of heating media). A commercial unmanned vehicle with a heat-sensing camera costs about $85,000, while a helicopter costs $3,000 per flight hour, this would pay for itself within 29 hours.
  • Drones use high-resolution digital, infrared and thermal imaging to detect and document possible leaks in the pipeline. If suspect areas are found, the locations are precisely mapped with GPS.
  • Depending on the gas pipeline inspection needs, drones with high -resolution digital imaging uses either a CH4 (Methane) or a C2H6 (Ethane) gas analyzer.
  • The gas analyzers are designed to detect elevated levels of either methane or ethane in the air above a pipeline.
  • The drone inspection flight report shows the exact flight path, along with GPS coordinates and levels of gas detected.
  • Drones use high-resolution digital cameras or LIDAR for ortho -photography for production of a 3D model of the pipeline corridor, and detects and documents Erosion, Exposed Pipe, Vegetation Over growth & Encroachments.
Noxious inspections:

H2S is extremely Poisonous, Corrosive & Flammable. Sour Gas fields are required to comply to strict HES policies and provision continuous monitoring for H2S. Fixed Gas Detection systems are used for ambient area monitoring and detection of unsafe levels of Hydrogen Sulfide. These fixed gas detection systems use sensors manufactured specifically to detect Hydrogen Sulfide levels in ranges from 0-25 to 0-5000 ppm. Most drilling companies continuously monitor for Hydrogen Sulfide as the gas can come up to the surface of the well at any time at levels that are dangerous to any personnel in the immediate area. An H2S Sensor used in a fixed gas detection system requires periodic replacement after several years of continuous use. Smart Sensors having digital data in an on board circuit, which when connected to a gas detection transmitter is automatically uploaded into the transmitter for ease of use and continuous, maintenance-free operation. Gas fields and plants are large inland areas and UAV solutions can periodically monitor very efficiently. Optical gas imaging cameras from FLIR can be deployed to visualize and pinpoint gas leaks that are invisible to the naked eye. Drones make it extremely easy and affordable to continuously scan installations that are in remote areas or in zones that are difficult to access.

Similar Sensor equipped Drones can be deployed to monitor and deduct other noxious gases. NASA has successfully flight-tested a miniature methane gas sensor similar to one developed by JPL for use on Mars, to improve safety in the energy pipeline industry. A global technology major's methane detecting Drone successfully found gas leaking from a couple of oil wells in Arkansas.

Though Drones can play an efficient role in detecting noxious gases in large assets, UAV and Sensor researchers are working overtime to address the following issues
  • Issue of heavy gas sensors that are too much for the UAV to fly
  • The issue of air displacement caused by "prop wash" from the rotors of the UAV would need to be addressed when taking actual gas measurements.
  • Some monitors were not able to intake gas at a high enough volume in order to detect the gas unless the emission source was directly applied into the gas sensor
  • Lack of sensitivity at long ranges
Drones are destined to transform the Asset management in Oil & Gas; it's extremely relevant in the current price regime helping companies to improve efficiencies at lower costs. They are up to 85% faster and cheaper than the conventional techniques. They facilitate thorough inspections even at extreme working conditions and environment, improving the safety and predictability of the operations. Use of Drones help companies continues inspection without having a need to shutdown, saving millions of dollars globally.