In June 2010 in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s frigid North Slope, a white model airplane could be seen flying in a pattern above energy giant BP’s oil field. Weighing about 13.5 pounds, with a fixed wingspan of just seven feet, this Puma AE drone was doing what otherwise might require a full-size, manned aircraft: taking high-resolution photos and measurements.
“It’s a lot more accurate, and it’s faster,” said Curt Smith, technology director at BP, comparing the drone to traditional aircraft.
Drones are fast gaining acceptance for uses outside of the military, but BP was one of the earliest adopters: That 2010 flight was the first routine commercial drone flight approved by the Federal Aviation. For BP, drones are proving a vastly more agile, efficient and effective way of monitoring sprawling energy development operations and infrastructure.
Best of all, drones can work while the oilfield facility operations continue. “Normally, you had to shut everything down,” he said. This enables inspectors to better spot potential problems: an errant flare or an off-and-on leak — hazards perhaps otherwise not evident when the plant isn’t operating.
In short, drones make monitoring oil and gas facilities much easier. The day may not be far off when more than 1,000 miles of pipeline that were previously inspected by manned aerial flyovers can instead be monitored virtually around-the-clock with a previously unattainable level of watchfulness and precision.
“Now we’re able to take continuous measurements,” said Dave Truch, also a technology director at BP. “It’s about continuous coverage and moving more and more to real-time monitoring and change detection.”
The Unmanned Aerial Systems project is a product of BP’s Chief Technology Office, a group tasked with keeping an eye on the technology horizon to find new ways to solve problems. For example, the group took a tour of Google’s offices in Menlo Park – circa 2003.
“It was some kind of converted strip mall,” Smith recalled, of the then-early-stage tech firm and its small staff. “They really all kind of fit in one room.”
In 2006, the president of BP’s pipeline group asked how the company could better monitor a 12,000-mile network of pipelines that stretched across Canada and the U.S. At the time, it was being inspected about once a week, courtesy of a pilot who would fly by and look out the window.
The group pitched several ideas — cameras, sensors — but each created new technical problems. Then the conversation turned to drones. “He said, ‘That’s what I want,’” Smith recalled, “‘That’s the one.’”
BP began working on the idea. They ran tests with NASA. They met in Washington with the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aircraft. The agency rejected what must have seemed a far-fetched idea at the time.
But by 2013, after drones had begun to go mainstream, the FAA reconsidered. On June 2014, BP and its partner, AeroVironment, launched the first unmanned aircraft mission to survey its North Slope Alaska oil field. The event marked the first time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted permission for UAS routine commercial services over land in the U.S.
The fixed-wing drones can fly over gravel roads in icy conditions to help guide and spot vehicles in icy or blizzard conditions. The company also flies rotorcraft drones — the kind that resemble mini-helicopters — to inspect facilities like oil-tank roofs or power lines, which could be especially complex.
BP now employs drones across the globe, such as inspecting oil rigs in the U.K.
Even so, some limitations remain; drones may only fly within line of sight. Consequently, inspection runs must be within line of sight of the controller. Getting permission to fly beyond line of sight is what Smith calls “the next frontier” — one that opens up revolutionary possibilities in terms of improved safety, efficiency, inspections and environmental protection.
“My friends tell me that’s coming soon,” he said.