Day of the drones

Elaine Maslin

October 1, 2016

In a short period of time, drones have shot to popularity as a tool for offshore oil and gas facility inspection. Elaine Maslin profiles the technology and its providers.

Flying high. Image from Sky-Futures.

They come in various guises and have been given numerous names - unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, remote operated aerial vehicles, multipurpose inspection octocopters and even flying laptops.

Whatever you call them, so-called drone technology is proliferating. The worldwide market for drones was US$3.4 billion in 2014 and is anticipated to reach $36.9 billion by 2022, according to WinterGreen Research. Drone use is not just by the military, as a hobby, or a tool for photographers, it is also becoming a serious tool for industrial inspection.

Having entered the offshore oil and gas industry in the early 2010s (after being used onshore refineries), they’re now increasingly used as part of routine work to inspect hard to reach areas, including under decks and inside tanks.

Combined with increasingly powerful computing software, such as automatic image recognition and search functions, they’re making serious in-roads into asset integrity management. Automated flight may also be on its way, along with a world where structures are designed so that drones can communicate with them as they’re being inspected.

Early days

Image created from the internal inspection on HMS Illustrious by Blue Bear. Image from Blue Bear.

For the oil and gas industry, this has been a relatively fast adoption of a new technology. The benefits early on were seen as being able to access hard to reach areas for inspection, such as flare stacks or wind turbine blades, without putting a person up a flare boom or on the end of a rope – and without having to shut in production.

Whereas in the military, the kit is bought and deployed, in oil and gas, it’s being provided by contractors who have the staff to fly it. Two firms have led the field in the UK sector, Sky-Futures, set up by two ex-military personnel, who had used drones in Iraq and Afghanistan for data gathering, and Scotland-based Cyberhawk, set up by one of the very people who had the joy of working at height at the end of a rope, and saw a better way of doing such work.

The launch of this technology in the UK sector was helped by the fact that the Civil Aviation Authority stepped in early to set out regulations, including what commercial drones could and couldn’t do, what requirements (insurance, operations manuals, etc.) were needed and a licensing regime. This meant there was a ready framework for the likes of likes of Sky-Futures and Cyberhawk to start out.

Adoption in the Gulf of Mexico came later because it took the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) longer to set out rules for flying drones. Initially, only research flights were allowed – something that BP conducted, onshore, in 2011. But it wasn’t until 2014 that permissions were issued, via a Certificate of Waiver and Authorizations, allowing non-military unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flights, over land, and then 2015 for the same over water.

This meant that it wasn’t until January 2016 that the first unmanned aerial vehicle/drone inspection was carried out in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas industry, by Sky-Futures.

As in the US, work started onshore in the UK. The first commercial use in the oil and gas industry was a refinery inspection, by Cyberhawk in 2010. This was followed by the first offshore facility inspection in the North Sea in 2011. Sky-Futures’ first job was a flare stack inspection with what was then Talisman, now Repsol, in the UK North Sea.

Mini airlines

Cyberhawk staff set off a drone offshore. Image from Cyberhawk.

While flying these things might seem easy, it’s not and it also comes with a lot of logistics, training and admin. “We are basically running mini airlines,” says Phil Buchan, commercial director, at Cyberhawk. Each pilot has a log book to complete for every flight, every machine has its own log book and regular service and maintenance intervals. To get to work offshore, they’ve generally had to have about 18 months training and experience, he says.

Also, not any old drones are used offshore. While the likes of China’s DG1 has been predicted to have a $10 billion market, costing $2000-9000 apiece, higher spec models are used for industrial inspection.

Cyberhawk uses different vehicles depending on the job, including an eight rotor Octocopter. At 1m across and weighing 2kg, the firm has done 13,000 flights using this model. It also has a smaller model, with four rotors, within a type of protective ball, for internal inspection.

Sky-Futures uses a Falcon 8 drone produced by Germany’s Ascending Technologies, which was recently acquired by US supergiant semi-conductor chip maker Intel. It can fly at 29 knots (55-56km/hr) and only weighs about 2kg, says Chris Blackford, Sky-Futures’ co-founder and COO. It has three autopilots, triple GPS systems, for redundancy, and can still fly on just six of its eight rotors, if rotor motors fail. Its lithium polymer batteries can support up to about 21 minutes’ deployment, depending on wind strength, etc., he says. Standard payloads for these units includes an HD video camera and thermal camera or stills camera.

While 21 minutes might not seem long, “We can do a huge amount in that time,” Blackford says. As an example, a flare tip and boom would take about half a day based on 4-6 flights using video and cameras. On a recent project for a North Sea client, 14 scopes of work were performed over 14 days that the client estimated would have taken 700 days using rope access. “From that job we probably took home about 40 GB of data,” Blackford says.

What’s more, “The use of drones is constantly getting more and more adapted by different customers,” Buchan says. “Some customers are changing their inspection philosophy to inspect everything by drone and only send a man in if they think there is an issue. Over the next few years, we think we will see that become more day to day.”

Significantly, as the technology has begun to be understood, the data collected and how it’s used is also getting more sophisticated. But more on that later.

Inner space

Flare stack inspection.Image from Cyberhawk.

“One of the biggest milestones in recent years is the ability to conduct internal tank inspections,” Buchan says. “Last year we carried out the very first inspection of an internal storage tank on board a Maersk Oil floating production vessel (FPSO), which was a major leap forward for the offshore industry.” This was the Gryphon FPSO, stationed in the UK North Sea. More work is being done on procedures in this type of work to make it more effective, Buchan says.

In May this year, Sky-Futures said it conducted the first FPSO tank inspection, without personnel entry, working on BW Offshore’s Athena FPSO and using a drone made by Swiss firm Flyability specifically for accessing inaccessible places.

Blue Bear, a UK-based developer of unmanned systems, which has been running for about 16 years – mostly in the military sector, but also in nuclear–has taken this concept a step further, towards automation. It recently flew an automated flight inside HMS Illustrious, an aircraft carrier that is being decommissioned. Without being piloted, the vehicle – called Riser – flew around, mapping the space and taking images as it went, without having had prior knowledge of the space in which it was flying around, says Ian Cowling, Blue Bear’s technical director. Riser was developed for the nuclear industry, in order to go into spaces humans cannot go. “It can fly in an automated way in an unknown environment without risk of collision and without operator input,” Cowling says. “The operator [sets] the flight pattern they want and it goes off and flies it.” It then produces a 3D map of the space. Repeated surveys over time can they provide 4D data of internal spaces.

Riser is a four-rotor vehicle, with protected propellers, weighing 4.5kg with multiple sensors, including lidar and cameras, so it doesn’t need to rely on GPS to fly and navigate. As long as it can be put into a space, it can fly around it and map it on its own, Cowling says. Blue Bear is working with classification society Lloyd’s Register (LR), UK-based computing and electronics engineering firm Createc, and operator BP on tank inspection potential using the system.

Big Data

Image taken underdeck, offshore. Image from Cyberhawk.

How the imagery, or data, collected is now used is also getting much more sophisticated and the data more accurate. “There has been a massive shift in understanding this technology in the last 12-16 months,” Blackford says. “In the early days it was very much put the drone up and take images.” Now firms are getting more and more sophisticated about what they do with this data, which is usually processed and held on a secure cloud server for the client.

From the imagery collected, a lot of information can be extracted, including taking measurements.

For Cyberhawk, this has been important to achieve in offshore wind, where accurate measurement is needed to pinpoint an issue in a particular place on a blade. Renewables have been a growing market for Cyberhawk, with 450 blades inspected last year and rising to 1000 this year.

“Over the last couple of years, we have developed how to size and measure defects and locate them, say 40m from the tip and 1m in from the leading edge,” Buchan says.

Cyberhawk also launched iHawk, a cloud-based visual asset management software platform, which converts the drone captured imagery into information that can then be used – defects categorized, for example – to make quick and effective management decisions, on a single dashboard, from which they can also access the high-resolution images, Buchan says. This helps to handle, in a condensed way, what is otherwise terabytes worth of data for just 10-20 turbines. Over time, it will also enable predictive maintenance. Up until now, this kind of support for clients to help them analyze and use the information captured has been lacking, he says.

Sky-Futures, meanwhile, has developed a technique it calls “finger printing.” By using image recognition software, developed in-house, an anomaly spotted in video of a flare stack can be “finger printed,” and then future videos of the anomaly can be searched automatically – instead of the hours it might take to have a human visually search the footage.

Sky-Futures has secured $11 million funding, from venture capital and helicopter operator Bristow Group, to build out a technology road map that is built around an inspection portal, which hosts all data collected. Platforms can be viewed in 3D for trend analysis. This could be looking at a flare tip over multiple years, using algorithms to predict what a crack or corrosion will look like in three months.

Shell – which set out its use of drones onshore Nigeria in 2011 at the SPE Nigeria Annual International Conference in August last year – says that with advances in machine vision technology, this could be done automatically, creating data on which to base predictive maintenance programs. In addition to that, the data could then be used to make assessments against other assets with similar structures or equipment, to help understand wider asset integrity trends, Blackford says.

Shell also says that there’s the potential for the data captured to be used to create metrologically accurate 3D models of structures using photogrammetry or laser scanning. This would help quantify the extent of defects, i.e. the size of cracks. Sensors could also be added to perform gas sniffing and other types of sensors are being developed.

Setting standards

LR has seen the potential for UAS use, for asset inspections, including over time, predictive maintenance, and platform imaging for brownfield engineering and decommissioning work scopes – provided the 3D models created from data collected is based on accurate information. Earlier this year, LR launched some initial standards for use of drones, but it says these will develop further over time.

“LR is trying to establish some standards,” says Chris Wilber, director, Pipeline Services, SGC Engineering, a member of the Lloyd’s Register Group. “This is an object in the air. There are safety issues around that, [such as] if there is a malfunction of the UAS and it falls on someone or something.” It’s also about where UAS can fly and in what areas flying one could create a hazard. Also under consideration is how accurately an operator can fly an UAS by hand, in different conditions, which is one reason why there’s a move towards automated flight, he says.

In an ongoing joint industry project, from its bases in Singapore and Southampton, LR is looking at how standards in this area can be improved.

“There are varying levels of uses, currently, and also the applications are very different,” says Jason Knights, LR’s global communications manager, i.e. flying in a ballast tank is different to flying around a flare, and to flying around an onshore site. How data collected can be verified is also being looked at, so that it can be used for verification purposes.

Indeed, insurers will also be interested in this technology, including best practice, Wilber says. While individual companies will have their set procedures, by having broader guidelines, more industry-wide guidelines and standards could be set, Wilber says.

“Does a company’s plan include inspection of the UAS to make sure it is airworthy? Do they look at the weather conditions or the condition of the operator? Can they see the vehicle at all times or is it reliant on lidar positioning? Will the condition of the facility or vessel it is inspecting matter,” he asks. “There may be gases you don’t want to fly a drone into.”

Setting out standards in these areas could give those operators who haven’t tried this technology more confidence to try it, Cowling suggests. It could also be of great interest to the likes of the UK Health & Safety Executive, which could find access to detailed imagery and data around asset integrity of great interest and use.

Automated flight

Automated flight also appears attractive. Cowling thinks this is something of interest to operators, as it would enable them to do more themselves. Shell has pointed to such a future.

Thailand’s PTTEP is also going down this path. Its engineers outlined a multipurpose unmanned aerial vehicle (the multipurpose inspection octocopter, or MPIO) they had developed for a range of monitoring and inspection tasks at OTC Houston in May this year. PTTEP has performed an onshore flare stack inspection, but says the next step is a fully automated MPIO, which will include auto take-off, auto flight control and auto-landing, the firm says.

Automation plays a big role for the future. There could be a drone on every platform that flies itself everyday, collects data, which is then processed and sent to those who need to see it automatically, Blackford suggests. “They are a flying laptop, essentially, and like cars they will eventually be driverless,” Blackford says. “They will truly be unmanned, flying themselves.”

Perhaps it’s with this future in mind that the third-party operators are focused on the value they can add to the data they collect, so they remain of use as a contractor.

Looking further into the future, platform design could even be influenced by drone technology, LR’s Knights says. “The way UAS is being developed across the world lends itself to how equipment and infrastructure could be designed,” he says. For example, drones could speak with the infrastructure and vice versa (the Internet of Things). “This new technology will be intrinsic to the way the industry is shaped in the future.”