Flying high

Chris Fleming

August 1, 2014

A Cyberhawk ROAV in flight. Photos from Cyberhawk.

Chris Fleming explains how using remotely operated aerial vehicles for inspections are reducing plant shutdowns at oil and gas production facilities in the UK and around the world.

At oil and gas production facilities all over the world, maximizing uptime is of paramount importance. This all-encompassing driver, coupled with a total commitment to optimizing safety, means that there is an ongoing requirement to carry out close visual inspections of plant and equipment as part of a planned maintenance schedule.

‘Traditional’ inspection access methods

Traditional methods of accessing assets for inspection include rope access and scaffolding. Both approaches involve ‘working at height’ and require assets to be shutdown. Rope access inspection puts personnel at risk and can be time-consuming, both in terms of crew setup and inspection duration. Scaffolding is an expensive option and may take weeks to erect. Again, both options are hugely expensive and costs can run into millions of pounds or dollars a day in lost production output.

The third traditional inspection technique is the use of full-size helicopters to inspect live flares at offshore oil and gas platforms. Again there are significant costs involved; there are also issues of availability. In addition to this, there is another serious problem relating to the method. A full-size helicopter inspection renders many safety-critical parts of a flare structure ‘uninspectable’ – examples may include the underside of the flare deck, access ladders, the flare stack/deck penetration and the flare boom.

A new service keeping assets ‘live’

Scotland-based Cyberhawk Innovations provides a new method of inspecting live and difficult to access assets. The method combines remotely operated aerial vehicles (ROAVs), highly skilled pilots and engineering experts to carry out close visual and thermal inspections of live assets that are ‘at height’ or difficult to access.

The ROAV inspection method offers operators a safe and comprehensive alternative to traditional approaches. Live asset inspection using ROAVs can also enable the operator to avoid the significant costs associated with asset shutdown. Unplanned shutdowns can often be prevented by using ROAV inspection to accurately assess the defective asset in question, rather than shutting the asset down at the first sign of an issue. Planned shutdowns can be made more efficient by using ROAV inspection to precisely identify the condition and specification of parts that may need to be replaced.

A two-man team conducts a multi-scope inspection from the back of a vessel.

Background to ROAV inspection

The miniature flying vehicles or ROAVs use high-definition video and high-definition still and thermal cameras to provide detailed information for inspection purposes. Cyberhawk’s battery-powered ROAVs weigh less than 2kg (about the weight of a large seagull) and are less than 1m in length. They are operated by a highly trained, two-man crew consisting of a highly trained pilot and a qualified inspection engineer. A two-man crew is critical for safe industrial inspection using ROAVs.

The ROAV is flown from the ground by a pilot who remains within visual line of site of the ROAV at all times. Typically the take-off and landing positions are close to the base of the structure being inspected. With the pilot’s attention focused solely on the operation of the ROAV, the inspection engineer is able to concentrate on controlling the camera payload. This ensures that the ROAV team is able to capture clear Close Visual Inspection (CVI) images and produce a comprehensive and authoritative inspection report that enables asset owners to make informed maintenance decisions. With an experienced and qualified –typically ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and CSWIP (Certification Scheme for Welding and Inspection Personnel) – inspection engineer on every assignment and the presentation of an interim report before leaving the site, the customer is able to have a timely, peer-to-peer discussion about the condition of their asset.

Keeping an operational hub fully operational

Cyberhawk was recently called in by Statoil to provide detailed maintenance information on the enormous Sleipner A platform. It is hard to over-emphasise the importance and complexity of operations on Sleipner.

The platform acts as conduit and processing facility for a number of offshore and onshore installations that supply gas to as far afield as the UK and The Netherlands, as well as to the domestic terminal at Kårstø. Shutting down the Sleipner platform has a direct impact on distribution and supply to these other facilities and requires a major scheduling and coordination process that can take months.

Due to the operational centrality of the Sleipner A as a ‘hub’, even when the platform is shutdown for turnaround, the flare system (which serves as a safety device should something go wrong) must still be capable of cold flaring potentially explosive gases. As such it remains ‘out of bounds’ to workers even during the shutdown. This means that the flare system is quite simply beyond the reach of ‘traditional’ inspection techniques, creating an uncertainty about its condition.

Avoiding costly shutdowns

Cyberhawk had already inspected flare stacks at Immingham and Kårstø at the other ends of the pipeline. Statoil was keen to use this method because live flare inspection eliminates the requirement to shutdown not only the Sleipner field but also the Troll, Draupner, Kårstø, Nyhamna, Langeled, Easington and Zeebrugge facilities, all of which feed in or out of the Sleipner A platform.

Left: Cyberhawk’s ROAV approaching the platforms underdeck. Right: Structural inspection image of the platforms flare stack.

Getting down to work – working together

Following a HAZOPS meeting with representatives from operations, inspection, and maintenance, the Cyberhawk team completed the JHA (Job Hazard Analysis) under the guidance of the shutdown manager for the Sleipner platform who was instrumental in planning and coordinating the entire project. With the platform management having approved the permit, the inspection of the 120m-high flare stack and the three live flare tips was ready to begin.

Faced with some challenging weather conditions with winds blowing at 25 knots, the pilot and inspector set up their equipment on the nearby riser platform, some 200m away from the flares, and began flying operations. The Cyberhawk ROAV is able to cope with high wind conditions and to hold its position which makes for an extremely stable hovering platform.

In under a minute the small flying machine was hovering above the flare tower, capturing valuable inspection data. On the first flight, Cyberhawk used an infrared thermal camera to detect internal burning in the flare tips, a condition known as ‘burn back.’ Soon after this, the camera system was changed and still photographs and video were captured of the tip and flare deck revealing minor damage to the radiation panels. All three flare tips were found to be in good condition allowing future turnarounds to be revised with this new inspection knowledge.

On the Sleipner, each flight lasted less than 15 minutes and the team was able to inspect all sides of the asset from the tips down to the water line. This highlighted some areas of corrosion to the jacket and damage to the ladder cages. Before leaving the Sleipner platform, Cyberhawk delivered a field report highlighting areas of concern to target in the next turnaround. This is the company’s standard practice and ensures that key issues are highlighted before the Cyberhawk team leaves the client’s asset.

Although ROAVs have certain automated features, safely piloting the ROAV in an industrial setting requires a high degree of pilot training and skill. These elements are required to accurately and consistently position the ROAV close to the asset and to ensure it can respond safely to unexpected events, from a gust of wind to signal interference. Cyberhawk refer to this as the ability to fly in full ‘manual’ mode and this is a cornerstone of its pilots training regime. Certain asset inspections, such as the underdeck inspection of an offshore oil rig, require 100% manual flying, and, especially in this case, a high level of pilot skill is vital to safe operation. This level is considerably above that tested and certified by Civil Aviation Authorities, and Cyberhawk has developed its own in-house training program to ensure that it can safely deliver services to industrial clients such as oil and gas and electricity companies. For example, to fly offshore, Cyberhawk pilots must pass four levels of internal training and certification over-and-above that mandated by the CAA.

Left: Image taken during the inspection of the underside of the platform bridge. Right: Close visual inspection of a live fare.

Inspections that create real independence

Over the past four years, Cyberhawk has carried out work for all six supermajors across the UK, Europe, Middle East and Asia. The company continues to look for ways in which it can add value to its proposition by improving its customers’ operations – right down to the most practical issues.

Limited bed space on platforms is a prime example: it is an issue for all operators, risking a ‘bed bust’ for all non-essential projects. In order to alleviate the problem of onboard accommodation, Cyberhawk has been focusing efforts in further developing its inspection methodology to allow greater independence from the platform.

In April 2014, Cyberhawk was called by an oil and gas supermajor to conduct a close visual inspection to quantify a workscope for fabric maintenance. The scope of work included CVI of the platforms flare, flare boom, platform bridge link, underdeck, jackup legs, jacket on the wellhead platform and the conductor guide frame. Cyberhawk operated from a supply vessel, providing the same standard of inspection imagery as previous ROAV inspections; it meant that the inspection could be completed without affecting the platform’s operations or bed space.

Thousands of images and high-definition video of the platform were captured, allowing a full inspection report on all of the requirements set out in the scope of work. By operating from the back of a vessel Cyberhawk’s inspection team was able to control the angle of the line of sight by moving the vessel around the platform. The result was a more detailed inspection of the platform’s underdeck and splash zone. A previous inspection of an identical scope of work took a six-man rope access team over three months. By contrast Cyberhawk was able to complete the inspection in just 10 days. It all adds up to greater efficiency, improved safety and considerable cost-savings. Operators can now carry out detailed multi-scope inspections without any effect on operations, logistics, bedspace or the welfare team.

Tried, tested and proven

Over the last four years, Cyberhawk has established the use of ROAVs for CVI and thermal inspection of onshore structures at oil and gas installations all over the world. The first deployments of micro multi-rotor ROAVs in the oil and gas industry were at onshore refineries and processing plants in the UK in 2010. In 2011, Cyberhawk took its technology offshore in the North Sea. Then in late 2012, Cyberhawk was, together with asset management company Stork Technical Services, awarded an Oil and Gas UK Award for Business Efficiency in the offshore industry.

Over 200 flares alone have been inspected by Cyberhawk in the UK, mainland Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Like the ROAVs themselves, the compelling proposition of improved safety, operational efficiency and higher quality of engineering data is now reaching more places than ever before.

Chris Fleming
serves as operations director at Cyberhawk Innovations Ltd. A CSWIP-qualified plant inspector, Chris has over 18 years of experience working in the oil and gas industry, having worked in Asia, America, Australia, Europe and the Middle East.