Drones in the Downstream: A Game of ‘Catch-up’

17 Aug 2016

by Matthew V. Veazey   DownstreamToday Staff

as published in Downstream Today

Recently, DownstreamToday examined the growing impact of drones – also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – in the oil and gas pipeline industry. As a July 19, 2016, article notes, the flying robots can mitigate risks to workers – particularly at heights, in hazardous areas or within confined spaces.

Such potentially dangerous locations are not isolated to the pipeline industry, and refiners, petrochemical manufacturers and others in the downstream also rely on drones to perform tasks such as facility inspections. DownstreamToday recently caught up with two UAV pros to discuss the outlook for using the increasingly sophisticated tools at downstream installations. Below, Philip Buchan, commercial director with the UK-based aerial inspection and surveying firm Cyberhawk, offers his perspective on this timely topic for refining and petrochemical players and others.

DownstreamToday: What are some of the most common uses of drones in the downstream?

Philip Buchan: UAVs are typically used in downstream oil and gas environments to conduct inspections within onshore refineries and petrochemical plants. Assets which can be inspected by drones are typically anything that is high, live or difficult to access including live flare stacks, chimney stacks, cooling towers and vents, storage tanks, elevated pipe ranks, buildings, roofs, ducting, gantries and walkways.

DownstreamToday: What direct benefits do drones provide refiners, petrochemical manufacturers and others in the downstream?

Buchan: The benefits are extensive and the industry awareness of these benefits grows continually, which means more and more companies in the downstream sector are turning to UAVs.

In the current environment, a key benefit for today’s oil and gas industry are the significant cost savings on offer. Much of these savings are gained through the ability to inspect an asset whilst it is still online, for instance a live flare. The cost of shutdown and production loss time can run into millions of dollars per day. Using UAVs mean that a shutdown is only required if the data collected has identified a maintenance issue which needs to be addressed. Time and time again we have proven to clients the savings on offer, with one saving around $11 million dollars through a multi-scope project.

The health and safety advantages are also huge. Inspections are often required in highly hazardous areas, as a result of working at height and the presence of dangerous chemicals amongst a multitude of other reasons. Using an unmanned drone removes the need for people to be placed in potentially dangerous situations.

The quality of data produced is also of extremely high quality. Our team has the technical skill to fly close to assets, capture all of the relevant data and imagery and provide engineering commentary on every asset inspected.

DownstreamToday: What are the key limitations of drones in downstream applications, and do you see the nascent UAS sector overcoming them in the foreseeable future? Why or why not?

Buchan: The use of drones for inspecting high, live or difficult to access these assets is now well established as best practice in many part of the world. For example, Cyberhawk have completed assignments in Europe, North America, Middle East, Asia and Africa, with well over 200 live flare stacks inspections alone. We have worked for all the oil and gas supermajors, many national oil companies and a number of large independent oil companies.

DownstreamToday: Is there any particular industry (or industries) recognized as the pace-setter(s) in using drones for inspections, etc.? If so, how can the downstream integrate what these UAS pioneers have learned?

Buchan: Cyberhawk created the UAV industrial inspection market, completing over 25 world firsts. Most of these early adopters were oil and gas companies. So most of the world has adopted this technique however flight regulations in the USA have meant that the U.S. oil and gas industry is just catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to the adoption of UAV inspections.

DownstreamToday: provision in recent U.S. legislation will allow UAS utilization for refineries and other energy infrastructure (President Obama signed the measure into lawon July 15). What impact do you expect this change will have on drones in the downstream? Also, in the context of energy infrastructure, is the U.S. charting new territory or perhaps catching up with other countries in regard to regulating drones?

Buchan: The U.S. is now beginning to catch up with other countries around the world when it comes to use of drones for inspecting energy infrastructure. We expect this means that UAVs will become increasingly common within both the upstream and downstream industries as a result.

DownstreamToday: What are some of the key trends you’re seeing in the UAS sphere that apply to the downstream? In, say, five to 10 years, what impact do you expect these trends to have on how and where drones are used in the downstream?

Buchan: The limitations of what can be inspected is continually increasing though. For example, after launching our internal inspection solution last year, we have already proven that UAVs are now also able to inspect the inside of tanks, boilers, chimneys and cooling towers which is a major step forward for the inspection industry. In the next five to 10 years, we expect to see more and more UAV inspections taking place, with the range of what can be inspected also increasing.