The oil and gas industry is beginning to adopt automation for many different purposes, but people still perform many critical and time-intensive jobs. Drones can help save time and costs by avoiding the deployment of human resources, making them an exciting subject of interest to many companies. Infrastructure inspections, leak monitoring, and emergency response are examples of applications where drones outperform people, and there may be other possibilities that will surface with additional research. However, the technology is still new, and due to the dangers present in the airspace, legislation on the matter can be restrictive.
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Companies will have to work to change it worldwide while adapting to some of the provisions if they want to benefit from the new approaches. Additionally, they should consider the implications of drones for information gathering and spying and devise protection methods for themselves.
The advent of information technology and various technical solutions has generated considerable popularity for unmanned systems. Drones, in particular, are the topic of much interest due to their ability to operate with minimal assistance from humans and flight capabilities. The oil and gas industry, which has an extensive offshore infrastructure, has to analyze large areas and relies on flying vehicles to do so, is a subject of interest. Drones can resolve many of these issues and reduce the costs of operation for many companies in the field. Companies and researchers alike are beginning to apply the results of their research, but so far, there are few published results. As such, this project will evaluate the potential benefits of the current uses of unmanned aerial vehicles in the oil and gas industry and propose new ones.
Many companies in the industry have already recognized the usefulness of drones in identifying pipeline leaks, an expensive but critically necessary process that is typically performed by specialized teams with much equipment. Tannant, Zheng, Smith, and Cahill (2018) note that the technology is not suited for widespread usage yet due to physical limitations, but it has significant potential for the future.
The traditional measurement method is both costly and potentially harmful to the people who conduct the testing, and so finding a safe replacement would be preferable. The potential for reduced costs due to lower personnel requirements and less expensive equipment provides considerable additional incentives for companies to invest in drones for the purpose. However, it is necessary to develop lightweight measurement tools that do not require a high-powered drone to carry them before the approach becomes viable.
Drones may be used for inspections of objects near to the controller as well as at a distance in the sea. Frederiksen, Mouridsen, and Knudsen (2019) highlight their benefits as tools for infrastructure inspection. The approach has not been documented in its specific application to the oil and gas industry, but it should not be difficult to evaluate the benefits of being able to analyze objects such as oil rigs in detail to note any signs of damage or decay. Many oil and gas industry objects are located at sea, and so, it can be challenging to evaluate their condition due to the need to use aircraft to access some locations from the outside. Drones will significantly reduce the costs of such endeavors without compromising the quality of the inspection.
Unmanned vehicles may be used for the improvement of overall safety in the industry, but they also have applications in emergency and disaster management. Arain and Moeini (2016) claim that drones provide a low-cost method of providing accurate and timely information from areas affected by catastrophic situations while the response teams are formulating a strategy and moving in. The use of drones would reduce search times and enable responders to arrive knowing their objectives and ready to complete them at a low cost. As a result, it would be possible to minimize damage and save more lives if any are in danger.
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As with infrastructure inspections, there is little to no scholarly information on the usage of drones for the purpose in the industry, possibly because the rarity of such events hinders innovations in the field.
There are some obstacles to the usage of drones in the oil and gas field, as well as in most other areas. As Baghirov (2018) notes, anyone may buy a drone, as the market is continuously growing and developing models accessible to buyers with any income level, but their real value is in software. Before drones can reach their full potential in oil and gas applications, it will be necessary to create a suite of programs that address the industry’s various needs. With that said, many of the needed functionalities have been implemented already for other purposes, and so, it is possible to save labor by taking them and adapting them to the situation. Nevertheless, until this necessary labor is complete, drones will remain somewhat inefficient, and companies will have to be persuaded to invest in suboptimal approaches for future benefits.
The final, though possibly most important, the issue concerns international legislation on drone flights, especially any potential conflicts between different nations’ laws. Sow (2018) identifies four possible approaches to the problem: following the local law, enabling flights beyond-line-of-sight, creating protected air zones, and creating drone rules based on those of other nations. All of these approaches have some issues, but overall, the fourth option is preferable.
The first is expensive and wastes time, defeating the purpose, the second creates a risk of violating the law, and the third creates the possibility of confidential information leaks. However, the fourth option still has issues because drone legislation is restrictive in most of the world’s countries due to its novelty. As such, companies that want to implement the technology should try to convince governments worldwide to change the law to accommodate modern needs.
Much of oil and gas exploration and production happen offshore due to the location of the resources and a variety of other factors. Due to the high demand for both types of fuel, they have to be continuously shipped worldwide, where subsea transportation pipelines offer many advantages. As such, there are extensive territories that a company has to monitor to ensure that its operations are safe, and there are few to no losses. In the past, that task had to be done by people due to the absence of technologies that could effectively automate the process and the need for manual repairs. As time went on, humanity invented methods to simplify the search for any issues and improve the overall efficiency of the oil and gas industry. The process is still ongoing today, and unmanned systems represent a possible next step in its evolution.
Statistical technology represents one such advancement, as it has made the detection of leaks possible without the need for physical monitoring. Zhang and Kane (2016) describe software that can identify and locate leaks by using instrument readings at the inlet and outlet points of a pipeline. Differences in flow at the two locations indicate that some losses are occurring, and advanced hydraulics simulations allow one to approximate the specific position of the issue. While new, the technology represents an example of the successful application of an unmanned system in the oil and gas industry. There is no need for human involvement in the statistical process until the system produces a warning that a leak may be taking place. As such, the adoption of the technology would likely benefit many companies in the field.
With that said, the ability of this system to detect leaks accurately is limited, especially as the length of the pipeline increases. Henrie, Carpenter, and Nicholas (2016) note that direct observation by a person, whether an employee or a third party, is responsible for the majority of leak detections. It enables the accurate estimation of the leak’s location, as the spilled contents will likely be near the defect or leave a trail downstream from it.
Hence, most companies rely on such reports when it comes to the detection of pipeline issues. With that said, having people inspect pipelines regularly is expensive, and drones equipped with cameras can perform in the role as well as a person when paired with an operator. Additionally, it may be possible to automate the process further by having the drones fly in set routes and using specialized software to analyze their recordings for signs of leaks.
Visual identification may not always be feasible, particularly with subsea pipelines located in areas with low traffic. As such, Henrie, Carpenter, and Nicholas (2016) highlight systems used to determine the presence of oil, gas, or other products outside of the pipeline by analyzing their surroundings.
However, such approaches require the presence of diverse arrays of instruments along the entire length of the structure to be effective. In addition to installation costs, they also require continuous maintenance due to the need to transfer information. As mentioned above, drones can partially alleviate this issue if they are equipped with detection tools. A single drone can cover a significant area and provide accurate external readings at a fraction of the cost of outfitting the entire pipeline with the necessary instruments. However, their aerial nature makes deep-sea measurements problematic until the problem advances to the point of extreme severity.
Leak prevention is critical in the oil and gas industry due to the extreme dangers that such an event may represent. Balogun, Matori, and Toh Kiak (2018) highlight how some past oil spills resulted in massive harm to the environment and billions of dollars in damages to the companies responsible. These situations also demonstrate that there is always a possibility of a disaster that develops before the company can mount an appropriate response.
As such, oil and gas companies have to be ready to address an emergency and minimize the damage that results from it. They have developed specialized frameworks for the purpose, which predict the development of the situation and highlight the optimal steps that should be taken to resolve it. However, these systems have some weaknesses that drones can help address due to their unmanned nature and unique abilities.
A crisis management system requires an accurate representation of the scenario and its development to produce the best results. However, human observers will generally arrive at the same time as the response teams, leading to a wastage of time while the assessment is underway (Balogun, Matori, and Toh Kiak 2018). Drones do not have transportation limitations and can deploy immediately while the people who will be dealing with the leak are preparing.
As such, they would allow support staff to see the situation and begin working on it earlier, likely leading to improved results. Unmanned vehicles can also serve a variety of other purposes, such as communication due to their ability to mount versatile equipment. Overall, they can allow companies to redirect valuable personnel to critical tasks that require immediate human involvement. It will likely be impossible to automate the process entirely, but it will still reduce the costs and improve the efficiency of disaster management considerably.
Strategies and Recommendations
The exploration of new assets is essential to the oil and gas industry due to the non-renewable nature of the resources that it collects and sells. However, as deposits are usually contained underground or underwater, discovery is both expensive and challenging. It requires the deployment of specialist teams equipped with a variety of sensors, which scout out areas over time and determine areas of interest. Mezghani, Fatallah, and AbuBshait (2018) propose the usage of drones to formulate digital maps of outcrops and modeling them. In doing so, it is possible to save costs and increase exploration efficiency.
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Geologists will still be required to analyze the results and possibly inspect areas that appear promising in person. However, their jobs will be made more accessible by the reduction in the need to travel, and companies will be able to conduct their searches faster.
The ability of drones to cover large areas without a high need for human resources or high transportation costs also makes them extremely useful for pipeline inspections. Fixed-wing drones, in particular, can fly along the entire length of a connection and look for any signs of issues. Quadcopter-type drones can take advantage of their ability to hover in place and make small movements to conduct a more detailed analysis.
This trait is useful for local points of interest such as wellheads, which present an increased risk of leaks and require careful monitoring. A drone can achieve the same results as a human team at a fraction of the cost in a similar time frame. Furthermore, with automated controls, it can conduct inspections continuously without the need to stop for more than refueling, occasional maintenance, and data downloads (if necessary).
Due to their relatively small size and ability to fly, drones can also conduct inspections in locations that humans may find challenging to reach. They can record high-quality footage of sites that are up high or at sea and use a variety of other sensors to provide additional information that engineers can then use in their analyses. Frederiksen and Knudsen (2018) highlight the application of drones for the detection of corrosion and other damage to oil rigs. They can also conduct general mapping for objects such as current and abandoned facilities, an ability that can help with future planning. All of these activities present both effort and danger to people, and drones are both at less risk and more disposable. Furthermore, there are advantages to the use of drones besides reduced costs or improved safety.
Many oil and gas installations are offshore, which complicates efforts to reach some areas due to the need to transport additional equipment to the location and back from it. Additionally, the lack of any land objects at sea enables strong winds and other hazards that make operations more dangerous for people. Drones circumvent many of these issues, as they can be stored locally or arrive from staging points on land, assuming they have a sufficiently broad effective range.
However, some modifications will still be necessary to accommodate the conditions, such as camera stabilization to address potential turbulence and lighter instruments to improve mobility. None of these should be particularly complicated or expensive modifications, but they are still necessary. As such, oil and gas companies should take these considerations into account and work to improve the operational efficiency of their drones.
Drones’ small weight enables them to consume less fuel than a transport that carries a team of people and the necessary equipment. As such, they are environmentally friendly, as Palomba (2017) confirms, while potentially improving inspection quality by accessing locations that would be challenging for people. As such, oil and gas companies can use drones as an example of their corporate social responsibility, as the technology is both safer and better for the environment in a variety of ways.
The industry has the potential to cause massive environmental harm if a breach occurs, as shown above. As such, improved safety is always extremely beneficial, and the public expects companies in the field to do everything they can to ensure it. If they cause fewer emissions in their inspections and do not endanger workers in the process, their public image will improve.
When promoting their usage of drones in the oil and gas industry, companies should remain aware of the public perception of the technology. People may not consider the complete automation of inspection duties to be safe, as any information relayed back to humans who can fix the issues will be temporary. As such, drone users should emphasize the technology’s role as one of assistance, performing work that would be too difficult for people and potentially unsafe. People have to oversee the system and make all of the critical decisions regarding the actions that should be taken. As such, the company will sacrifice none of its capabilities while gaining a valuable new instrument that enables it to operate better. Considering the public memory of past oil spills, this approach, which emphasizes safety and efficiency, should yield the best results.
In addition to the prevention of any dangerous events, drones can contribute to safety in their management. Mireault (2019) claims that oil wells sometimes release acid gas, which is a health hazard for a human observer due to the impossibility of perceiving the cloud with the naked eye. In general, humans will likely be harmed in most disasters and drones represent an alternative that can perform many of the same tasks without risking harm to a person.
Furthermore, drones that usually perform other duties and are equipped with cameras or specialized sensors can be adapted for emergencies with a slight software change. As such, the initiative presents an excellent possibility to reduce costs while improving the health of the company’s employees. Besides, as mentioned above, it will possibly enhance the quality of disaster management operations through timely information gathering.
Companies may also explore innovative drone applications for purposes they may not have considered previously, such as transportation. Capitta et al. (2017) propose a design for an automated transport drone that can move fuel between two distant locations at significantly lower costs than a ship and compete with pipelines. In doing so, it would save considerably on logistics and maintenance costs without consuming too much fuel, as the drone uses a lighter-than-air design. The proposal merits further exploration, and the applications of drones in the industry, in general, deserve new research that would capitalize on their abilities.
There are most likely additional automation opportunities that may be associated with significant benefits for organizations that implement them. However, studies on the topic are currently being impeded by restrictive legislation that has not yet adapted to the increasing popularity of drones.
When used irresponsibly, drones can present hazards for other aerial vehicles in the area or access confidential locations and record information about them. Turner, Ross, and Lin (2017) list a variety of rules employed in the United States, one of the world’s most advanced nations. The government is mostly concerned about airspace safety, and so it is willing to let the pilots of lighter drones conduct their operations with a simplified training course.
However, the laws of many other countries are not as friendly to drone operators as those of the U.S., and companies will be restricted in their operations in such circumstances. As such, oil and gas companies will have to engage in efforts to improve the state of drone law worldwide before they can implement new ideas on a broad scale. As such, they have to formulate a set of rules that satisfies their needs as well as national concerns and promote it.
However, oil and gas companies also have assets that they would prefer to keep secure from outsiders for a variety of reasons. They should not rely on the government to protect them from unauthorized intrusion attempts. The reason, as Chisholm (2018) notes, is that such regulations restrict economic operations and growth as well as innovation. As such, while automating their systems, companies should consider whether it would be permissible for other aircraft, drones, in particular, to enter specific areas as well as how they may be deterred. The specific measures for doing so are currently unknown, and thus, companies have to research possible protection methods. Options include physical and electronic interference, which may be carried out by automated drones, as well. However, both variants will require specialized drones and surveillance systems, as well as additional legislation discussions.
There are many opportunities for drone usage in the oil and gas industry due to its need to cover large areas and inspect complex offshore objects. The devices can analyze pipelines for leaks and help look for any signs of damage to the infrastructure, jobs that usually involve significant human resources, and potential danger. They can also be invaluable to disaster management due to their ability to arrive at the area quickly and gather information for the response teams’ planning.
With proper application and further investigations, people can find many other innovative usages for drones in the field. However, current legislation for unmanned aerial vehicles is too restrictive in many countries, and businesses will have to work to change it before proper implementation becomes possible. At the same time, they have to consider the implications of widespread drone usage with regards to safety and privacy and formulate internal policies on the matter.
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