Use Of Drone Technology To Improve Productivity In The Oil And Gas Sector
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Use Of Drone Technology To Improve Productivity In The Oil And Gas Sector

Mark Hutcherson, Director, Low-Carbon Projects and Technology at ConocoPhillips
Mark Hutcherson, Director, Low-Carbon Projects and Technology at ConocoPhillips

Mark Hutcherson, Director, Low-Carbon Projects and Technology at ConocoPhillips

The oil and gas industry has begun to adopt drone applications on an unprecedented scale to maximize their operations while minimizing human error and lowering costs. From 2020 to 2025, the global oil and gas drone service market will grow at a CAGR of approximately 60.96 percent. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones provide more advantages than crewed operations. Drones provide more accurate data, process bulk information in real-time, conduct inspections, and detect emissions or leaks. In 2013, ConocoPhillips [NYSE: COP] business unit collaborated with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to complete the first commercial flight by an unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the U.S. The commercial flight path was pre-determined and lasted approximately 36 minutes, intending to incorporate drones into the oil and gas industry. Drones can help with offshore and beyond-visual-range inspections, as well as effectively monitoring methane emissions. They have the potential to save money, time and improve operator safety.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAJOR CHALLENGES YOU’VE BEEN WITNESSING IN THE DRONE TECH INDUSTRY?

Drone technology is an undeniable asset to companies in the crude oil industry due to the rate at which highly accurate and invisible data captured. The immediate ROI generated from each drone assists with the challenge of cutting costs, while the unprecedented amount of human safety gained from this technology is exponential compared to any other safety measures that can be in place. Furthermore, the collected data allows identifying actionable improvements to overall production, resulting in higher output from preventive maintenance. Finally, the drone’s ability to detect leaks and spills, map environmental and safety-related incidents, and improve the environmental responsibility aspect, as it uses lightweight drone technology rather than heavier, less effective, and higher power consuming traditional technology. Previously, we performed manual inspections on our large long-haul oil tankers, which required a lot of time and money. We can now use a drone to survey the entire top and bottom interiors with minimal scaffolding.

  ​The oil and gas industry has begun to adopt drone applications on an unprecedented scale to maximize their operations while minimizing
   

 

The value proposition would be to reduce the workload on surveillance and inspection for our field operators. One of the most difficult challenges we encountered was not conducting operations beyond the visual line of sight. Now, things are changing, and space is evolving. The FAA has now started to offer some regulatory relief for operations beyond visible line of sight. However, we are still a long way from that becoming commonplace in the industry. The second major source of pain revolves solely around data management. So to avoid using drones, you receive a large amount of information or data. It can be challenging to figure out how to store that data, organize it, and sort through all of that data. And this can be a time-consuming process. So finding ways to organize and structure the data, finding ways to utilize machine learning, or advanced algorithms to look for exceptions in the data.

ACCORDING TO YOU, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LATEST TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS THAT ARE HAPPENING IN THE DRONE TECH SPACE TO TACKLE INDUSTRY PAIN POINTS?

 The advancement of technology and integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with the drone has been the significant factor leading to the adoption of drone services in the petroleum industry. Previously, businesses conducted drone operations within the visual range of sight. Today, AI integration has enabled drones to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVOLS) and gather much more data without any human intervention. Modern drones are faster and wiser at processing massive amounts of data generated by assets. Drone data is more accurate and provides trends that are not visible to the naked eye. They can save the petroleum industry millions of dollars by improving on-site and offshore facilities and lowering maintenance costs. Furthermore, the AI integrated sensor can move quickly inside the closed building, is not prone to colliding with any surface, and can navigate without human assistance. As these technologies advance, the number of drone applications in the industry will grow, and the market will thrive.

COULD YOU ELABORATE ON SOME EXCITING AND IMPACTFUL PROJECTS THAT YOU’RE CURRENTLY OVERSEEING?

We are very interested in utilizing drones in the emission space, both for emissions detection and for detecting broader greenhouse gas emissions. ConocoPhillips is committed to a global climate policy that reduces methane and CO2 emissions. We have set a short-term goal of reducing methane emissions intensity by 10 percent by 2025. We are currently investigating how drone applications can be used in our workflow to aid in comprehensive emissions detection, allowing us to respond proactively to reduce our emissions over time. In our efforts to comply with climate policy regulators, we have had some success. We are currently focusing on reducing GHG emissions through our projects running in the U.S., Canada, and Norway.

HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE FUTURE OF DRONE APPLICATIONS IN THE NEXT COUPLE OF YEARS?

 Drones can now be used in a variety of operations thanks to the advancements in remote sensing and imaging technologies. They are now widely used in the oil and gas sector for offshore operations. They assist in remote monitoring and surveillance of the company’s critical assets. Amazon, the e-commerce behemoth, recently used drones to deliver supplies. As the director of technology projects for an energy company, I would like to see more of these applications deployed in the oil and gas industry. Field trials show that drones can provide a quick, reliable, and cost-effective solution for the inspection and maintenance of offshore facilities. The challenge for drone applications would be determining the value proposition and what the regulatory investment would be?

WHAT WOULD BE THE SINGLE PIECE OF ADVICE THAT YOU COULD IMPART TO YOUR COLLEAGUES TO EXCEL IN THIS SPACE?

The first step for any individuals or organizations looking to increase the use of drones in their operations is to consider the value proposition. Organizations should be aware of the challenges or pain points they face in their operations and then attempt to link those to either known or use cases from different industries to apply on their own. However, you can also be innovative or creative by considering how organizations can utilize drones in the future. In addition, collaborate with vendors to advance and develop these types of technologies. That is the sole recommendation I would make. Always begin with the pain points that you’re most familiar with. Organizations should assess how drone applications will benefit them? Drone applications are a lot of fun to use in the industry, but it’s easy to get distracted and overlook the value. So you have to constantly refocus on what you’re trying to accomplish, and does it add value to your goal?

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