Once limited largely to military applications, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – better known as drones – are being deployed for a growing list of governmental, non-profit, agricultural and commercial purposes. Just a few applications for the flying robots include helping to fight forest fires, transporting medical supplies to remote areas, monitoring livestock and perhaps even delivering tacos. In fact, civil UAS applications are becoming so commonplace that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently finalised operational rules for certain drones used for routine commercial purposes. The new regulations will take effect in late August, according to the FAA.
The oil and gas industry sees value in the use of drones, particularly when the devices can mitigate risks to workers. For instance, it is increasingly finding ways to use the aircraft to inspect offshore and onshore facilities at heights, in hazardous areas or within confined spaces. Seeking to support consistency in the broadening UAS applications in oil and gas, Lloyd's Register earlier this year released "guidance notes" for drones in the energy and marine industries.
The energy industry already uses drones to inspect onshore oil and gas pipelines for evidence of corrosion, but UAS technology has not yet matured to the point where it can also be a viable option for monitoring offshore pipelines. DownstreamToday recently caught up with Chris Wilber, Houston-based pipeline services director with the Lloyd's Register subsidiary SGC Engineering, LLC, to discuss the outlook for using drones to inspect the complex network of underwater structures linking offshore rigs and platforms to onshore facilities. Read on for his insights.
DownstreamToday: How are offshore pipelines typically inspected, and what are the key shortcomings of the status quo?
Chris Wilber: The best inspection method is an inline inspection (ILI) method. However, a significant proportion of the world's pipelines are difficult to pig or are deemed "unpiggable," which means they cannot be inspected using ILI. Carrying out pressure tests to verify pipeline integrity has it is own disadvantages. Specifically, they do not identify the severity of flaws (other than critical flaws that result in failure) and in some case as a result of the pressure tests themselves this can result in the existing flaws increasing in size.
Additionally, pressure tests require pipelines to be taken out of service, which can be logistically challenging and also extremely costly. So the industry has started to look at direct assessment methods such flow simulations, corrosion assessments and application of statistical analysis to determine locations where the highest internal corrosion rates are expected. This helps to identify optimum locations for subsea inspection of the difficult-to-pig branch lines. New remote operated vehicles (ROV) are also being deployed in subsea non-destructive testing (NDT) applications which use digital radiography, computed tomography, and even "pulsed eddy current" techniques where measurements are taken through any non-conductive material such as insulation, protective costings, concrete and marine growth – and these are already being used with considerable success in the market. Our own experts in Lloyd's Register have successfully used subsea ROVs with its state-of-the-art IRIS software for tracking, monitoring and visually identifying data streams.
DownstreamToday: What can drones do that existing inspection processes cannot?
Wilber: We are seeing research themes being developed by companies in industry to consider the current way they inspect equipment or infrastructure and how this part of their business operations could be improved against cost-effective applications and risks, with particular focus on smarter collision and accident avoidance through the use of computer vision and advanced sensing technologies in open environment and confined spaces.
The use of robotic technology for inspection purposes reduces the need for personnel working in enclosed spaces and at heights. Minimizing risk across the industry by utilizing cutting-edge technology in this way is of great importance to the energy industry. This technology provides a real opportunity to decrease the number of falls and fatalities that occur due to traditional methods of working at heights, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, Safe-Work Australia and the UK's Health and Safety Executive.
Also, drones can be operated at a much lower per-hour cost than many manned inspection vehicles and offer the ability to collect data on a pre-programmed repeatable track, providing consistency in the inspection data and making the identification of maintenance trends much easier.
DownstreamToday: What are some of the limitations of using drones for inspections, and how are LR and others working to overcome them?
Wilber: As with any new technologies, UAS brings new benefits as well as risks. We believe the technology will advance in phases. We also believe UAS, when applied correctly, can help increase efficiency and reduce human exposure in hazardous environment.
Certainly hardware-related limitations, such as battery power, loss of GPS signals and the weight of the sensors or camera equipment carried in air are just a few of the current restrictions identified in the use of drones. Many of the hardware manufacturers are currently working on these issues. We can see the technology has many potential applications, and it has triggered ideas on new applications. One area we are focusing on is in the safety aspect of this new technology, and how we integrate it with existing safety processes, and ensure operators use it to enhance safety, and to limit the introduction of new risks. It only takes one or two accidents or near-miss reports to set a bad record for robotics and unmanned systems in the industry, so our guidance notes released earlier this year will help the industry take into consideration important considerations.
DownstreamToday: Inspections with drones can require a greater upfront investment but achieve a lower total cost compared to conventional inspections. Please elaborate.
Wilber: There are obvious costs associated with introducing new technology. These can include hard and software purchases, training and insurance or perhaps costs associated with outsourcing the inspections to a qualified service provider. Arguably though, if compared to a manned inspection of a facility, using subsea or aerial using rotary aircraft for inspection purposes can reduce the upfront costs considerably.
In some circumstances, high-risk environments can remain operational with the same risk factors during the inspection without the need to enforce additional safety measures or downtime. In the event the operation needs to be suspended, pre-work survey using UAS can reduce the downtime required. Robotics and unmanned technology has a crucial role to play in the current environment, where it can create operational efficiencies in a cost-effective way.
Technological innovation requires a new type of inventiveness and open mindedness: an eager and proactive search for novel solutions, approaches and ways of working. Robotics and unmanned technology is a smart transformational driver in offshore and maritime.
DownstreamToday: What do you consider the most exciting trends in regard to using drones for aerial inspections? In other words, what do you think will be different about drone-based inspections 5 to 10 years from now?
Wilber: UAS is developing on the backbone of many market challenges including low oil process and an ageing workforce. Developments such as this are enabled by technology advancements, digital data and learning from adjacent industries along with an impetus to change. We are seeing research themes being developed by companies in industry to consider the current way they inspect equipment or infrastructure and how this part of their business operations could be improved against cost-effective applications and risks, with particular focus on smarter collision and accident avoidance through the use of computer vision and advanced sensing technologies in open environment and confined spaces.
The ability to fly "Beyond Visual Line of Sight" (BVLOS), as is now allowed in France and several other countries will significantly increase the usability of drones for inspections. We will also see drones in the future carry more sophisticated sensors that will allow for more detailed NDI assessments of facilities. Battery technology will also improve to the point where drones can stay in the air for a lot longer. Through acquiring relevant and timely digital data, companies will use this information to improve their assessments of structural integrity, maintenance requirements, security, performance benchmarking – collectively helping the industry become smarter and more cost-efficient.
LR's experts regularly share their research and insights.