The Future is Automated

But drone technology still faces obstacles in the oil field

The future of drone technology, especially considering its promise for the oil and gas industry, has a link, albeit a small one, to the past. According to Harper’s Magazine, the Obama administration spent $2.2 million training former coal workers to operate drones in the future.

There’s serendipity in that.

Clearly something is happening.

Drones, sometimes called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aircrafts (UA), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or remotely piloted aircrafts (RPA), are on the cusp of fundamentally changing the way things are done in the 21st Century – and that includes how things are (and will be) done in the energy sector.

According to two experts in the field, Ian Smith and Jeff Campbell, before something can happen, something else has to get out of the way.

The federal government.

“Currently,” Smith said, “drones are in a bit of a limbo stage of automation. The hardware and software are both quite capable of autonomously operating. Think, a weatherproof, solar-powered box which holds the drone inside of it – every morning the drone emerges from the box, flies around, captures data of the assets or designated area, and returns to the box for uploading data to the Internet, recharging of batteries and safe-keeping.”

Regulatory Hurdles

“But it has not been successfully commercialized yet,” he added.

And why is that?

Smith, who works in business development for DroneDeploy and hosts a podcast for Commercial Drones FM, a company that specializes in promoting the drone industry, said it’s partly because of regulation, namely that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t comfortable yet with all these machines flying around on their own.

Image Caption

The Robota Eclipse Professional UAV provides high resolution aerial mapping. Photo courtesy of Robota, LLC.

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The future of drone technology, especially considering its promise for the oil and gas industry, has a link, albeit a small one, to the past. According to Harper’s Magazine, the Obama administration spent $2.2 million training former coal workers to operate drones in the future.

There’s serendipity in that.

Clearly something is happening.

Drones, sometimes called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aircrafts (UA), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or remotely piloted aircrafts (RPA), are on the cusp of fundamentally changing the way things are done in the 21st Century – and that includes how things are (and will be) done in the energy sector.

According to two experts in the field, Ian Smith and Jeff Campbell, before something can happen, something else has to get out of the way.

The federal government.

“Currently,” Smith said, “drones are in a bit of a limbo stage of automation. The hardware and software are both quite capable of autonomously operating. Think, a weatherproof, solar-powered box which holds the drone inside of it – every morning the drone emerges from the box, flies around, captures data of the assets or designated area, and returns to the box for uploading data to the Internet, recharging of batteries and safe-keeping.”

Regulatory Hurdles

“But it has not been successfully commercialized yet,” he added.

And why is that?

Smith, who works in business development for DroneDeploy and hosts a podcast for Commercial Drones FM, a company that specializes in promoting the drone industry, said it’s partly because of regulation, namely that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t comfortable yet with all these machines flying around on their own.

“An operator has to be able to take control, stationary, on the ground.”

Is that so bad?

Smith doesn’t say it’s not a deal-breaker, but admits it is currently illegal to operate a drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) from the operator, and that can be a problem.

“This means that the scenario of a drone taking off based on a schedule, every single morning from that box, would require an operator to be there, maintaining unaided, visual line of sight with the drone,” Smith said.

For his part, Campbell, a managing partner for Vertical Aspect, a mapping and consultation company, said he doesn’t disagree with the regulations per se, especially on the BVLOS, but does understand the pitfalls along the way.

“FAA regulations, if implemented in a well thought out but timely manner, can both generate innovation and provide a guideline for safe, efficient operations. If the regulatory bar is set too high, everyone will just walk under it; too low and it gives the false impression of orderly conduct and safety,” he said.

“We are getting closer,” Smith said of the BVLOS waiver, “in other countries and in fact, in the United States, a commercial drone operator who wants to deploy a system like this, could absolutely apply for a waiver from the FAA – but getting their permission is not guaranteed.”

In fact, he doesn’t know anyone who’s received a waiver.

Effects on the Workforce

Another aspect of drone technology – and this is of key concern for every sector, not just oil and gas – is the effect it will have, once it takes off, on the job markets throughout the affected industry.

Smith said the answer is complicated, and perhaps not what you think.

“Oil and gas is a cool industry,” he said, “and drones are, at the moment, just an extra thing in the tool box.”

But he sees it as an important tool that will be used more as it becomes more available.

“You have these installations – this static infrastructure that could stand to gain a ton from drone flights. Easy, cheap, repeatable and constant aerial views and imagery that normally you can’t get.”

One example – which is being used industry-wide – is the detection of leaks in pipelines.

“You have miles of pipeline, zig-zagging around – and so some of the uses for the drones would be to stick a laser methane detection sensor on a drone and have it fly all around that pipeline. Instead of having a person walk up and down the length of the pipeline – or in a truck, or helicopter, which is done now and takes a long time and is expensive – you could send that person off to do other things (that are) more valuable.”

He envisions a drone taking GPS readings and measurement, a few times a second.

“Then all of a sudden you can start pinpointing where the highest levels of methane, where the leaks are, and if you do this every day or every week, you can start developing trends as to where the weakest points are along these lines,” Smith explained.

Drones will help with surveillance and security measures as well, including predictive maintenance and providing real-time data and overall monitoring of pipelines.

“For the foreseeable future,” he said, allaying fears of mass firings and dislocations, “there will be many jobs (whether due to location, weather or aerial obstructions), that will best be performed by traditional surveying methods.”

The theory is that once drones are employed, costs go down, productivity rises and safety (likely) increases.

“The workers,” Smith said, “who normally would have been manually surveying, inspecting and patrolling an area could then do what humans do best and find patterns, provide more expert advice on how, specifically, to fix a problem and put in action the next steps to fix it.”

Technological Limitations

Campbell said, presently, there are two main obstacles to greater drone use:

  • Battery life: Drones, like cars and their corresponding miles per gallon, don’t all get the same “mileage.” Fixed-wing drones get the best battery life – up to 60 minutes – while heavy single-battery multi-router drones with big payloads are in the 10-minute range.
  • Collision sensors: While improving, they’re still not good enough, Campbell said, “to prevent flying into a single power wire or branch.”

And, while drones have moved beyond being a hobbyist’s experiment to become a valid and efficient tool, they are still somewhat in their infancy. Both Smith and Campbell think it’s a growing process, like any new technology.

Smith joked about the reluctance of some people to accept these machines flying overhead.

“As a society, we have to get used to things,” he said.

He laughs when he talks of the sometimes violent reaction some have when seeing them fly over their homes.

“It’s a federal crime to shoot down a drone, whether it’s carrying diapers or nothing,” he said.

Campbell, too, understands the new technology will be something of a learning curve for many, but doesn’t see the transition as being a difficult one – and, here, oddly (or maybe not), he gives a shout out to Lady Gaga.

“Lumping all types of unmanned aircraft into the same category is no more valid than lumping stealth bombers and light recreational aircraft together,” he said, but added, “incorporating the swarm of 300 choreographed drones into the opening segment of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show was a welcome, highly public, positive use of drones.”

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