Energy firms aided by eyes in the sky

Drones are flying into a variety of sectors from catching poachers in Africa to delivering parcels to Amazon and DHL customers.

And one company is looking to bring the technology to this region’s oil and gasfields.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have grown in popularity, with many dubbing 2014 as the year drones took off. The US Consumer Electronics Association predicts further growth with 400,000 UAVs expected to be sold this year globally with revenue hitting US$130 million, an increase of 55 per cent over the previous year.

With the popularity of these unmanned aircraft, it is not really a surprise that the region’s hydrocarbon sector would pay attention. here are numerous opportunities for UAVs to be used in oil and gas. In this region alone, the UK firm Sky-Futures believes the market size is in excess of $10m. Drones can help throughout the industry in ways such as checking mission-critical components without requiring the entire oil rig to shut down.

Being in the oil and gas industry is not just about the geologists studying seismic surveys to drill the next big discovery. There are many jobs and one of the most dangerous is being a rope technician. These 12-hour shifts involve wearing a harness and working at the end of a rope, sometimes more than 70 metres long, to conduct inspections or maintenance on a platform.

By using drones, less time is taken and a rig does not have to stop operations, which can save companies major money. Nigel Baxter, the business development director of Sky-Futures, says his company helped one hydrocarbon firm in Egypt to avoid a five-day shutdown, resulting in savings of more than $3.7 million. “The amount of inspection data we can collect in five days [from using UAVs] takes rope technicians about eight weeks,” he says.

In addition, rope access requires a standby vessel when working offshore in case of an accident, which can cost between $60,000 to $150,000 per day. Mr Baxter says using drones is 80 per cent cheaper than conventional inspection techniques such as rope access.

“Sky-Futures saves clients [potentially millions of dollars] by inspecting offshore assets while they are still in production and this cannot be done by rope access [because of live gas flares],” he says.

The market for drones is booming and the company has seen revenues increase 300 per cent each year between its 2011 creation and 2013. Last year Sky-Futures reported a 600 per cent revenue hike.

“Everyday we are asked by clients if we can inspect another asset type, where they see the cost advantages of using UAVs,” Mr Baxter says.

Royal Dutch Shell began using remotely operated aerial vehicles to examine its large energy plants in Europe. The company says it is increasingly using this technology to inspect the condition of its oil and gas facilities in hard-to-reach places, such as a “tall tower or the underbelly of an offshore rig because it’s safer and more efficient than sending people”, it says.

Other companies are also developing drones with inspection capabilities. Skyway, a six-axis drone created by the US firm Ehang, can be used for professional aerial image gathering, regional logistics, climate monitoring and even criminal investigations, it says.

However, as drones continue to break out from recreational use, rules are also being established. Five years ago, the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) introduced new regulations that require operators of drones for aerial work proposes, including those unmanned aircraft equipped for surveillance, to obtain CAA permission before commencing a flight.

But drones are still relatively new to the UAE. As of April, this country’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) issued regulations restricting airspace for drones as well as Abu Dhabi halting all sales of the technology until further laws are introduced.

The UAE Flying Zone Map for Private Use is still under development while commercial entities must apply for a licence through the GCAA. Mr Baxter says the GCAA seems to be close to finalising the law to control the use of UAVs generally. “We do have work with clients in the UAE and are in the process of applying for licences,” he says.

In addition, security clearances are also required. “We are in the process of application, but so far the security process has proven to be the longer process,” Mr Baxter says, adding that currently Sky-Futures is the only company requesting to use UAVs in the oil and gas sector. “So we understand this is partly the reason for the delay,” he says. The company is also awaiting approval from Qatar. And while the firm anticipates maintaining at least 300 per cent growth year on year, this depends on procuring the required approvals.

“For the region, as we are at an early stage of adoption of the technology in our market sector, this [growth rate] depends on how quickly we get the formal security approvals in place,” Mr Baxter says.

Sky-Futures is looking at adding new measurement technology such as using lasers, 3D gas modelling and thermal and visual imagery. As the technology develops, drones can move from data collection to data management, having the ability to automate information collection and upload the inspection data gathered.

Mr Baxter says that will help to add value, particularly in what is a volatile market. “With the oil price at current levels, this technology enables clients to not only digitise their data collection, but also enables them to focus their inspection on key areas.”

Oil and gas companies across the board are looking for ways to cut costs, especially in today’s environment with oil prices under $50 a barrel. One of the major areas to cut costs has been in slashing jobs. The UK’s offshore oil sector has cut 65,000 jobs, according to Oil and Gas UK. Facebook groups such as Oilfield Families of America are filled with posts discussing layoffs.

The UK human resources company Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC), says that recent developments in artificial intelligence including robotics and drones raise age-old concerns about machines taking jobs.

However, it believes the use of drones and other technology is a positive element to the sector.

“Drones can be used to complete dangerous or tedious duties within the industry – potentially saving workers from unnecessary injury and death,” says Robert Mogielnicki, the head of public relations and senior analyst at OSC.

“In certain cases, sending a drone in may indeed be more cost-effective in terms of both insurance and time, and finding cost-effective solutions is certainly a pressing priority for the industry given low oil prices.”

He adds that despite the workers drones could replace, it was important to remember that oil and gas engineers and technicians would still be required to analyse images, diagnose issues and produce solutions. “Skilled workers in the industry can rest assured that they will not be replaced by drones,” Mr Mogielnicki says.

For Sky-Futures, its 32-member workforce includes 10 remote pilots, inspection engineers, pilot teams, structural engineers and experts in the field of flare assessment.

Mr Mogielnicki says engineers and technicians may be able to work more hours remotely, while some less-skilled roles may be better performed by drones under the supervision of the skilled technicians.

“The need for skilled workers will not disappear, but the nature of their roles may indeed change.”

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