Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been the subject of much debate in recent times. Concerns surrounding such issues as privacy, and the use of drone technology within the military arena, have been frequently publicised; however, these pilotless aircrafts are making waves in major global industries – for all the right reasons.
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Drone technology has evolved immensely over the past few decades, driven primarily by military research. Historically used by the armed forces, drones are now being tested for use in a range of civil applications, and are becoming increasingly popular in the commercial and private markets. Global giant Amazon is currently developing Prime Air, a future delivery system designed to safely transport packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using drones. Advancements in technology (combined with falling costs) have also resulted in a notable rise in consumer purchases – civilians are now able to purchase UAVs freely and affordably, both online and in stores.
With regard to oil and gas, this cutting edge technology has the potential to enhance various upstream, midstream and downstream operations, in such areas as site surveying and mapping, laser scanning, emissions monitoring, and inspection and maintenance – and developments are already well underway.
At the end of March, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Pasadena, California, announced that researchers had successfully flight tested a miniature methane gas sensor. The sensor, similar to one developed by JPL for use on Mars, enables the detection of methane with much higher sensitivity than previously available for the industry in hand-carried or small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) deployable instruments."These tests mark the latest chapter in the development of what we believe will eventually be a universal methane monitoring system for detecting fugitive natural gas emissions and contributing to studies of climate change," said Lance Christensen, Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS) Principal Investigator at JPL.
Furthermore, in early April, UAV industrial inspection company Sky-Futures announced a technology and delivery partnership with Flyability for drone-based internal tank inspections. Together, the companies plan to rapidly implement, develop and grow internal tank inspection drone technology and associated software to significantly improve safety, cut costs and boost efficiency.
These are certainly exciting prospects for our industry, particularly in light of recent legislative developments in the US. In mid-April, the American Petroleum Institute (API) applauded the Senate’s passage of Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization and, in particular, a provision in the legislation that would allow unmanned aircraft system utilisation for oil and gas facilities, refineries, and pipeline inspection and response activities. The Institute has urged the House and the Administration to follow suit, and make drone safety technology a reality in the oil and natural gas industry.
It is unclear what the oil and gas landscape will look like in 10, 20 or 50 years time, but technologies such as these could arguably revolutionise the industry in a big way.