Drones: an expanding field
The use of drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) continues to expand rapidly in areas of the oil and gas industry.
Rather than creating new technology, makers of drones are building onto existing technology, finding new and innovative uses for the advancements.
The oil and gas industry is experiencing a paradigm shift, due to the expanding capabilities of UAVs—according to Alistair Scott-Farris, Managing Director of C4D Intel. The company provides temporal data, processing and analytics—through use of UAVs—to many diverse industries, including Australia’s oil and gas industry.
“UAVs are allowing industries to work smarter, faster, cheaper and safer,” explains Scott-Farris.
And that’s apparent on many levels—there’s currently a number of advances in drone technology assisting the expansion of the industry overall.
According to Scott-Farris, the technology is expanding on three fronts. Firstly, battery life on UAVs is increasing, and the drones are able to maintain longer periods of airtime.
The second is that UAVs can now undertake autonomous missions. This means, instead of having someone behind the controls and flying the UAV manually, with an accurate GPS enabled environment, the UAV can be programmed to fly autonomously. The controller can instead be viewing the images in real-time.
The third factor is in the development of hybrid airframes. Traditionally, drones were either fixed-wing or multi-rotor aircrafts. The hybrids in development currently have the endurance, speed and longer battery life of the fixed-wing aircraft, but can also take off or land vertically and hover like the multi-rotor variety.
An example of where the industry is seeing the benefits of better UAVs technology is in flare tower inspections, where drones have been in use for a number of years. The ability to hover, launch and land from a confined space is prevalent particularly to the offshore oil and gas industry where space is often at a premium. UAVs have made this process safer and far less costly.
“It allows for the best of both worlds,” says Scott-Farris, “and it vastly expands UAV applications.”
The advances in drone technology has so far lead to greater efficiencies, while reducing risk and costs on a broader level. And the applications for the improved technology are almost endless.
Broadening horizons and applications
“UAVs are tools that enable the digitisation of assets,” says Scott-Farris. “This is because they allow asset owners to capture their assets from a quantitative perspective, in those hard-to-reach places.”
This is obviously of great importance to the offshore industry particularly, but has applications right across the oil and gas industry for both external and internal inspections.
One example is Elios —a UAV designed to fly within confined spaces, such as a ballast or inside pipe racks. Before this technology was available, rope access or scaffolding had to be used, with personnel climbing down or inside very confined spaces and slowly investigating each area to find the location of a problem. A flying UAV can quickly pinpoint problems which can then be fixed by personnel quickly, and with much less exposure to risk than traditional methods.
Chevron has the objective of preventing personnel working within confined spaces, by 2020. UAVs, such as Elios , will make this commitment possible by having a UAV undertake pressure vessel testing and inspections, instead of placing personnel in potentially dangerous situations.
This idea of a digital twin may eventually replace the multitude of drawings needed for models and asset construction. For example, building up a virtual reality model of a HD switch room has a number of applications. Safety personnel can work within the digital space for induction, while engineers can examine the geometry—allowing them to measure and walk around the space without having to go out on the platform.
“Once you’ve built up that digital twin, it becomes that source of truth for a business.” said Scott-Farris. “The models can then be updated live or at regular intervals.”
Technology set to expand in near future
Another interesting application of the advancing technology is in photogrammetry.
“This is where we are seeing the technology move quite rapidly,” explains Scott-Farris.
Through this, the operator is able to stitch together a large number of high resolution images to build up a 3D model. UAVs use laser scans to create a very detailed and engineering-precision level 3D image.
The digitisation of assets is not its only use. Scott-Farris explains: “Where I think the technology is going, and we’ve had reasonable trial periods, is in draping, where images are draped over the top of the high precision laser scans.”
This means operators and asset owners can not only have an engineering-precision laser scan, the image can be then coupled with a HD visual.
“The HD images can show things like early rust discolouration or staining due to corrosion like only a visual image can.
“Combining these two images, we can capture so much more information, which leads to further operational efficiencies and reduction of risk to personnel.”
The primary advantage is being able to capture and then compare images. Thermal, electromagnetic and infrared scanning can also be utilised. These images can be used to determine and predict disintegration or corrosion over time, for example. Accurate calculations can then be made about scheduling maintenance costs or avoiding downtime.
The UAV industry continues to evolve rapidly. “There are developments around UAVs which can carry fuel or supplies, or payloads as big as people or vehicles to ship them to offshore rigs,” says Scott-Farris.
Ultimately, this could mean there will be no more helicoptering personnel or equipment on or off rigs in the future. And soon, even the helicopters could be unmanned.
“The application of UAVs in the future is going to be far broader than we currently see them.
“It’s very interesting to see how quickly all of this is developing, with the offshore oil and gas industry as one of the most interesting areas to see this expansion.”
“This isn’t science fiction anymore.”
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