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The sky's the limit

Published by , Senior Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

The development of drone technology is touching upon a wide range of industries, sectors and aspects of life. From unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) military reconnaissance missions, to terrorist use of drones for attacks on oil infrastructure and the closure of airports as a result of questionable drone usage, the proliferation of the use of drones is steadily gaining prominence in the media.

The oil and gas industry has also experienced an increase in the utilisation of drones, particularly with regards to remote monitoring, inspection and predictive maintenance of critical infrastructure. One area that continues to experience an increase in the utilisation of drones is the storage sector, particularly tank terminals. Drones are increasingly being used both in a preventative capacity, for inspections of storage tanks, and in response to spill incidents. In an ideal world, regulation would adapt and homogenise across multiple jurisdictions to provide a legal framework in which operators could utilise drones with clarity and certainty as reliance on the technology in these capacities continues to rise. Unfortunately, the regulators have been outpaced by developments in drone technology and usage. Operators of drones and users of drones services need to be vigilant in embracing the benefits of drones in the current limited regulatory environment.

Preventative utilisation

Traditionally, sophisticated sensors and pumps have been used to prevent or contain spills at oil storage terminals. These include overfill sensors, metered pumps and concrete traps. There has, however, long been a reliance on human inspections in an attempt to identify and address any concerns with the structural integrity of storage tanks. This process is often costly and time-consuming. Drones are beginning to be used as an effective means of reducing the time, cost and risk involved in undertaking these necessary inspections. For example, French company ROAV7 specialises in data acquisition with UAVs in critical environments such as industrial tanks.

There are a number of obvious potential benefits to inspecting tanks in this way:

  • Safety – using drones to inspect the inside and outside of tanks is far safer than human inspection. Using drones can eliminate traditional methods to gain access, such as ropes, cranes, ladders and scaffolding.
  • Speed – drones allow for a quick and efficient inspection process. This can reduce the amount of maintenance related downtime and the associated cost impact.
  • Technology – drones can be equipped with a variety of technologies and sensors which allow for the collection of a wide range of data. These include sensors that can facilitate the 3D mapping of storage tanks and thermal imaging.
  • Accuracy – the technology carried by drones can spot cracks and other anomalies with far greater effect than the human eye. With many now enabled with artificial intelligence (AI), drones can be programmed to return to a particular crack to monitor it.

In the past, there has been some concern that utilising drones to inspect tanks with unknown structural weaknesses could result in damage. Recent advances in drone technology have mitigated some of these concerns, with some designed-for-purpose drones now being encased in a skeleton structure, ensuring that the heavy and expensive payload of the drone will not come into contact with the surface being inspected. In other advancements, drones can be fitted with parachutes and have double protectors installed to protect against battery explosions and minimise the risk of damaging the structures being inspected. For example, SK Energy has introduced drone techniques to inspect its crude oil storage tanks at its production based Uksan Complex in South Korea.

Additionally, drones can now be fitted with obstacle-avoidance technology and collision tolerance measures that can be used to reduce the possibility of collisions. For example, the Flyability Elios 2, a drone designed for functioning in confined spaces, is capable of hovering in place to spot sub-mm cracks and it is fitted with a cage to provide protection against collisions.

Overall, drones are increasingly being used as a cost- and time-efficient method of storage tank inspection. The utilisation of drones in this way enables easier access to areas that previously presented health and safety risks, as well as providing more accurate and reliable results. With recent developments in the technology facilitating the mitigation of some risks, performing tank inspections with drones will continue to become increasingly commonplace.

Responsive utilisation

Despite the adoption of regular inspections and safety measures in an effort to prevent spills, no system is fool proof. This means that spills do still occur, both onshore and offshore. It is therefore essential that the response to such spills is rapid and efficient to minimise the potential financial and environmental impact of these incidents. Oil spills that occur onshore at storage tank terminals commonly have marine consequences in addition to the need for onshore clean-up. This dual impact is usually due to the proximity of terminals to the marine environment, primarily to enable access for vessels. As such, while many of the advances in drone use in response to oil spills have been seen in an offshore setting, these advances are also of interest to operators of onshore facilities (and their insurers).

There are a large number of potential uses for drones when it comes to managing oil spill incidents. These include:

  • Rapid monitoring of affected areas to determine the nature and extent of the spill and to provide responders with the necessary information to effectively contain the spill.
  • Monitoring of waterways or shorelines that previously may have been inaccessible. Often it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of shoreline oiling using ground-based surveys for safety reasons, and assessments can sometimes be limited to the use of helicopters, binocular surveys or no surveys at all.
  • To enable the examination of the condition and efficacy of response equipment. For example, for offshore spills, drones can be used to determine whether skimming systems and booms require replacement, cleaning or removal where oil has been spilt into water.
  • To provide more accurate imagery and data to validate trajectory maps to enable effective response decision-making.
  • To gather footage for government agencies to use to inform and reassure the public of the response to an oil spill.
  • To track the hulls of vessels sailing through oil slicks if oil spills into water.
  • To monitor situations where there is a risk to human life and it is too dangerous for a helicopter to monitor.

The use of drones for surveillance and reconnaissance following an oil spill incident was recently put to the test by Terra Drone Angola by simulating an oil spill off the coast of West Africa. This involved releasing environmentally friendly dye in the vicinity of offshore oil and gas assets. The aim of the test was to establish how effective drones could be in streamlining the management and monitoring of oil spill incidents.1 During the test, it is understood that six drone flights were taken with the aim of locating and evaluating the size of the spill. In a real-life scenario, this data would be fed back to decision-makers, who would then have more reliable information with which to determine the most appropriate response. A similar test was recently successfully conducted by Chevron, along with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Coast Guard and several other administrative institutions.2

There have been other significant recent developments in this sphere. For example, Oil Spill Response Ltd, the world's largest oil spill response company, has teamed up with Sky-Futures, an international UAV technology provider, to develop and provide a drone-based inspection service in order to provide better incident response and shorten mobilisation time.3 Further, Wingtra, another drone technology company, recently utilised its WingtraOne drone to assist with the assessment and response to an oil spill which occurred after a bulk carrier hit the edge of a reef on Rennel Island in the Solomon Islands in February 2019.4

The increased use of drones in response to oil spills is enabling better understanding of the specific requirements and limitations of using drones in this way. For example:

  • Size – there is a balance to be struck between the sturdiness and stability of the drones used, and their size and capability. Fixed winged drones tend to be sturdier and have better capability in bad weather, but generally cannot take off or land vertically. Conversely, multi-rotor drones tend to be smaller, and while they are capable of taking off and landing vertically, they have limited capability in high winds and bad weather generally.
  • Optics – the selection of appropriate optical equipment is key. Fitting drones with equipment that is capable of capturing images in low light, or at night, has the potential of increasing the period in which detailed observations can be made to 24 hours. Consideration must also be given to sunlight reflection and the requirement to use polarised lenses to mitigate this issue.
  • Range – it is important for drones utilised to assist in the management of oil spills to be able to stay flying for significant periods of time as well as be able to cover large areas.
  • Regulation – drone technology is relatively new and most jurisdictions have been slow to provide a suitable regulatory response to their increased use. An understanding of jurisdiction-specific regulation is important, as is bearing in mind that oil spills can often be transboundary incidents, affecting several jurisdictions' waters.

The use of drone technology in this way has the potential to significantly benefit the response and reaction to oil spill incidents globally. An obvious benefit is in the potential for significant reductions in response costs. Further, if the incident can be dealt with quicker and more efficiently, there may be a parallel reduction in pollution liabilities.

Legal, regulatory and coverage concerns

As the storage and tank terminal industry continues to develop an appreciation of drone technology, care needs to be taken in the assessment of the risks that can be associated with such usage in an oil and gas context, noting the vast array of jurisdictions any one operator might be active in, each having its own unique legal response to the use of UAVs. One of the main difficulties, both nationally and internationally, is the disjointed interrelationship between laws and regulations addressing the registration, regulation and insurance of UAVs. Invariably at this stage, many of those laws and regulations are incompatible with a vast range of other laws and regulations otherwise completely unrelated to the use of UAVs.

A possible collateral benefit of using drones to provide a quicker and more effective response to oil spill incidents may be recognition in pollution cover provided in policies of insurance as to the benefits of appropriate drone usage. How pollution cover will adapt or change remains to be seen, but it is clear that the use of drones is of benefit to both insureds, looking to minimise liabilities arising from oil spills, and for insurers looking for methods by which insureds can mitigate their risk.

Overall, as the technology develops and becomes more effective, legislators, regulators and insurers will be better placed to respond to the usage of drones as part of oil spill responses.



Written by Maurice Thompson, Angela Flaherty and Max Bravlavsky, Clyde & Co. LLP.

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