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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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Drone Technology Gets Energized

Only a decade ago, drones were the purview of the military, but today we are realizing the commercial potential of this technology and the numerous cost-cutting applications for the oil and gas industry in the future. For everything from exploration and pipeline leak detection to oil spill clean-up assistance, drones are poised to become a necessity rather than luxury.  

First, let’s just clarify: Drone is just another name for robot, but what we’re talking about here is the Predator-style, unmanned aerial vehicle—maybe a bit smaller, and certainly not weaponized.

It turns out that drones have a number of applications that don’t involve annoying Pakistan by launching bombing raids from across the border in Afghanistan, or sending them out to spy in Iranian airspace (and sometimes getting caught).

We’re bringing this up now because it is more than likely that as of September 2015, the US government will begin allowing private companies to fly commercial drones over US airspace, and this will be the stage-setter for a new market for drone technology as it targets the oil and gas industry. (The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, AUVSI, projects that the drone industry will impact the economy by more than $82.1 billion by 2025 overall). 

The idea is being tested right now in Alaska, where there is more remote territory to experiment. But where it should really take off is in the Arctic, where the remote and difficult-to-access terrain will require a lot of unmanned smart power to help with exploration and monitor pipelines for leaks and spills.

We also see market potential here for drone use in the Gulf of Mexico, where renewed interest will be further boosted by the next lease auction in August and new legislation on the US-Mexico transboundary agreement that will pave the way for more drilling. Here, drones could be put to great use on deep-water rigs.

But it is the Arctic that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is thinking of for the September regulatory change. The FAA sees the potential here for closer monitoring of oil and gas operations with the use of drones. In fact, the FAA estimates that we should have around 7,500 commercial drones of the 25-kilogram variety in operation by 2020.

Using manned helicopters can get expensive. This is why we think drones will emerge as a crucial tool for the industry. It costs oil and gas companies about $85,000 to buy a drone with heat-sensing equipment. It costs about $3,000 an hour to send a manned helicopter in to patrol a pipeline. At this rate, the drone is paid for within 29 hours. 

What we don’t quite get yet is why supermajor oil companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell are already staking their claims on drones, while pipeline majors like TransCanada and Enbridge are still resisting both drones and the latest in pipeline leak detection technology.

TransCanada and Enbridge seem to think that while the military is loosening its reigns on drones, they’re contractors aren’t giving up ALL the technology. They also are of the opinion that drones aren’t ready for large-scale commercial use. Both opinions are true to some extent. The drones that BP and Shell are testing in Alaska can only handle short flights. These drones are smaller than the military fare and they can only fly for about 20 minutes because they are carrying sensor equipment that is highly sophisticated, but also very heavy.

So it’s early days, and before we get into large-scale commercial usage, we’ll need to get our hands on some of the military’s more advanced technology, or wait for commercial developers to release smaller equipment.

Military drones also have another feature that evades the commercial versions: They can detect objects in their path and divert their course to avoid collision.

This will happen, slowly but surely. We expect this to take off in earnest beginning in early 2016, and within 10 years the use of drones should be the mainstay first and foremost for pipeline monitoring and later for aiding exploration.

BP Pipelines plans to deploy its first drones in Alaska’s Northern Slope somewhere around 2016, and it’s been researching how drones can help it improve efficiency and cut costs since 2006.  It also used drones to help detect sights for clean-up in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Shell’s got a head start on BP, having begun research in 2005. Shell is also using drones to assess environmental impact by tracking and monitoring marine animals and biodiversity in offshore drilling areas.

We also like the potential for drones to help identify mineral deposits and aid in new oil and gas discoveries. Researchers in Germany and Switzerland have been using drones to identify mineral deposits, and the Centre for integrated petroleum research (CIPR) and universities in Norway are using drones to map new oil reserves on inaccessible land. The drones help define the geology by taking aerial shots of rocks, including rock type and thickness of sedimentation. (The technique is called ‘virtual outcrop geology’).

Companies to Watch

Canadian-based Aeryon Labs produces The Scout, a compact drone that weighs in at 1.2 kilograms—worlds lighter than the military’s famed Predator drone, which weighs 1,020 kilograms. The Scout feeds live data to the operator and can pinpoint pipeline leaks or detect signs of pipeline weakness caused by rust or cracking. It is capable of vertical take-off and landing and can get up closer to a pipeline than a helicopter.

Aeryon’s Scout drones were used in Libya by rebels fighting Gaddafi, but now they are eyeing the pipeline leak detection market. These are the drones BP is testing in Alaska.

Canadian-based Dragonfly produces lightweight drones (less than 10 pounds), which are largely used for inspecting deep-water oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. We expect a particular uptick in this market as the deep-water rig count is poised to increase in tandem with renewed interest in the Gulf of Mexico.

Below the Surface…

There is also growing interest in underwater drones, and our pick for this sector is VideoRay LLC, which sells versions of its remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) to oil companies for about $150,000 each. These mini underwater drones are used mostly for hull inspections and can be piloted by smartphones. The company has about $10 million in sales annually. VideoRay is also working to develop what it calls “automated underwater vehicles”—even smarter versions of the mini ROVs that do not require full-time remote control.

The bottom line: This is definitely a future piece of the oil and gas pie, and while it’s early days and the regulatory environment doesn’t support it just yet—by 2015 we’ll see this market start to take-off and in 10-13 years it will soar.

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