As energy companies look to control costs and manage assets effectively in the face of low commodity prices and uncertain demand, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) present an interesting opportunity to conduct inspections more affordably and gain valuable business insights.
For some executives, the idea of introducing yet another data stream could seem overwhelming. Energy companies are already managing massive data flows from machine sensors, customer systems, smart meters and more, and raw UAV data could just add to the noise. To make a drone program work, the company must take a purposeful approach.
UAVs offer powerful asset inspection capabilities that can be delivered at much lower cost and risk than traditional inspection methods. On an ocean rig, a UAV or drone can fly under a platform to provide views that traditionally have been collected by roughnecks using harnesses. At refineries, UAVs can collect data from the top of a flare stack while it is operating — a vastly less expensive method than shutting down the equipment so that an inspector could climb to the top of that stack to take a look. In a remote pipeline location, a UAV can eliminate the need for an in-person inspection by flying low and detecting pipeline conditions and intrusions by vegetation of wildlife. In solar and wind, UAVs can perform asset inspections faster and more easily than ground-based inspection teams can.
Drones are highly versatile at collecting and delivering data. They can be equipped with HD still cameras, HD video cameras, laser measurement tools, thermal imaging, and gas sniffers. Companies can use them to identify and monitor gas leaks and detect anomalies such as cracks and corrosion. Video and images can be viewed in real time and then stored for additional analysis by staff and analytics applications.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opened up this vast universe of possibilities when it approved Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016, which permits the use of UAVs in oil and gas operations, but not without limits. Companies are bound by line of sight (LOS) requirements, which means they can only fly UAVs where the operator can see them.
Start with Goals
The potential cost savings and asset management enhancements throughout energy are immense, but there are issues to address. It is a long journey from downloading images, videos and gas level readings to integrating that unstructured data into business processes and deriving value.
Companies can make a UAV program work by setting goals and determining exactly what data they will collect and how they will apply it. For example, the goals might be to enhance individual inspection cycles while also evaluating how the assets are aging. UAVs would be dispatched on a predetermined schedule with specific instructions to collect exactly the imagery or readings required. Inspectors would determine what level of detail and resolution would be needed to support their needs, and UAVs would be equipped and programmed accordingly.
UAVs can be very valuable in asset management. By integrating the data they gather effectively with data from other sources, such as machine sensors, inspection records, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) data, companies can determine the actual rate at which each asset is aging based on data over time. An asset that ages prematurely can be replaced ahead of schedule, preventing any unscheduled disruptions, while an asset that is outlasting its predicted life can be retained longer, improving its ROI.
Prior to launching its UAV program, the company would develop and deploy one or more analytics applications that would be used to analyze data both for the particular inspection cycle and the long-term analysis of asset lifecycles. To manage the UAVs themselves, companies would use complex flight planning tools and data processing methods that typically include live-streaming and digital systems of record. Data on the UAV operations is essential to demonstrate compliance with airspace regulations and document inspections.
To enable that in-depth analysis that would optimize UAV investments, companies must become adept at data management and integration. They must develop procedures for storing and managing unstructured UAV data streams and integrating them with structured data sets such as geographical information systems (GIS) data to support analytics.
UAV vendors offer varying degrees of support, from providing live data feeds to integrating the UAV data their own cloud-based analytics applications to provide complete, comprehensive analysis. Some providers are well versed in the energy industry, while others are newcomers to the space. Energy companies must decide how involved they want to be in the UAV data processing and subsequent analysis.