Technically, this falls under the topic of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Oil and Gas Sector.
You’ll want to call them drones.
Or, if you must, think of these “vehicles” as softer, kinder drones, for while they have their origin in military applications (for which it was designed), the technology has since made its way to the oil and gas industry, specifically in terms of pipeline inspection and assorted applications.
You know what? Don’t call them drones.
“It’s called robotic aviation,” said Wilson Pearce, chief operating officer for ING Robotic Aviation in Canada, laughing, because he knows the word “drone” is a tougher sell.
“We’re a business, after all.”
What he’s proposing for the profession, however, is an application that can be both cheaper for operators, better for the environment and – not to put too fine a point on this – save lives.
But more about that in a moment.
“The technology,” he said, “is still quite new and associated with the military in the popular mindset.”
And you can see that clearly in the company itself, where 70 percent of the workers at Toronto-based ING Robotic Aviation come from the Canadian military.
ING, in fact, still supplies equipment to the country’s armed forces, but what he’s talking about here is the opportunity to change the way companies go about fact-finding and inspecting facilities.
And that includes, in a big way, the oil and gas industry.
The Sound and the Fury
“Our noise footprint is well below the mandated requirement to stay below 120 db,” Pearce said.
How loud is that?
“We are about as loud as a sewing machine flying overhead.”
And as good as that seems – sounds? – the real savings from the unmanned technology comes from the savings in fuel costs.
“We’re talking about a half-liter of fuel per aircraft,” Pearce said.
You read that right.
If you’re wondering how that’s possible, consider of the two crafts: one, the Serenity, is 35 kilograms; the other, the Responder is only 10 kilograms.
Compare that to the size of a typical helicopter that has historically been used for the task, which weighs approximately 4,500 pounds, empty.
Now, compare the fuel consumption of the Serenity to that of the helicopter.
Here, though, is where this technology (and the military has been selling the same benefits for years) is most advantageous.
“You can either have a 10-kilo item come down in unexpected fashion or a helicopter come down in unexpected fashion,” Pearce said.
Don’t let the focus on weight and equipment get in the way. Pearce is talking about perilous duties. He’s talking about crashes, he’s talking about tragedy, he’s talking about people who go up in helicopters and, when problems occur, come down dangerously in remote places.
“So anything we can do to get people out of aircraft,” he adds, “the more sense it makes.”
‘Dirty and Dangerous’
At the present time, the primary applications for these UAVs in Canada remain line-of-sight operations: looking for cracks and anomalies in the pipelines, which include flare stack inspections, as well as infrastructure inspections.
“We put these in what we like to call the ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ category.”
One of the areas most affected by, say, spills is the foliage, literally, that can be found at the foot of the pipelines. If there are anomalies in growth patterns, chances are there’s some kind of leak.
And you can’t get a helicopter between the pipeline and the ground.
The Responder can.
Selling the UAV, though, is a continuing effort. Operations this year have included wildlife monitoring, environmental monitoring flights and fixed asset surveys.
You would think, then, this would excite environmental groups – and it has, to an extent – but Pearce said conversations with them are less than satisfying.
“In discussing this informally with environmental and related researchers,” he said, “the key issue for them has been our ability to operate using a fraction of the energy and equipment footprint that traditional solutions for wildlife monitoring, require.”
But that’s solved, right?
Sort of, because, while Pearce has answers, the environmental groups changed the question.
“One person told me, ‘Yeah, but you’re still working on behalf of the oil and gas industry.’”
You can hear Pearce’s frustration when he tells you that story, but he’s optimistic.
Moving forward, the key to the UAV, he believes, is the sensors on board, for clearly when you have a 10-kilogram plane, the type, size and sophistication of the sensor is limited.
“Results are driven largely by the sensors,” he said. “Therefore, our focus has been on the ability to operate our vehicles in a fashion that allows us to integrate industry standard sensors for EO/IR/multispectral/LIDAR and related missions.”
The Next Biggest Thing?
Talking about UAVs, Pearce reiterates that while the application may be new in civilian circles, the technology has been around for years.
At the moment, though, it doesn’t work without some cooperation, some interfacing between the two groups – often in the same company.
“We still provide services to the military,” he reiterated, though he wants to make it clear that there are drones and there are drones.
What his company uses in western Canada is not being used in Kandahar.
“Strictly military technologies are governed and difficult to apply,” he commented.
It is, he admits, equivalent to brand-name drugs and how, little by little, year after year, more generics come out.
So, too, in the area of drone and unmanned technology.
There is nothing new here.
“The introduction of a technology for military use, followed by widespread commercialization that rapidly spreads the technology, reduces cost and develops lots of applications.”
“Robotic aircraft is the future, but really, it’s now.”
He said the United States Department of Defense now trains more UAV operators than traditional pilots. In America, like Canada, he believes the technology is far ahead of the regulations.
It’s important and inexorable that they meet.
“This,” he said of these small, unmanned robotics that use less fuel than a lawnmower, “is the next biggest thing.”