Drones: From Delivering Tacos to Fighting Pipeline Corrosion

Drones: From Delivering Tacos to Fighting Pipeline Corrosion
An expert from a Lloyd's Register unit discusses the changing capabilities of unmanned aerial systems.

Once limited largely to military applications, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – better known as drones – are being deployed for a growing list of governmental, non-profit, agricultural and commercial purposes. Just a few applications for the flying robots include helping to fight forest fires, transporting medical supplies to remote areas, monitoring livestock and perhaps even delivering tacos. In fact, civil UAS applications are becoming so commonplace that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently finalized operational rules for certain drones used for routine commercial purposes. The new regulations will take effect in late August, according to the FAA.

The oil and gas industry sees value in the use of drones, particularly when the devices can mitigate risks to workers. For instance, it is increasingly finding ways to use the aircraft to inspect offshore and onshore facilities at heights, in hazardous areas or within confined spaces. Seeking to support consistency in the broadening UAS applications in oil and gas, Lloyd's Register earlier this year released "guidance notes" for drones in the energy and marine industries.

'Unmanned'...to a point

Drones can keep inspectors out of harm's way while providing them detailed imagery that improves their ability to assess the condition of infrastructure. Nevertheless, the devices – which typically can only be operated within the pilot's line of sight – still need direction from their human masters.

"Drones are a tool, but it still takes a special analysis to uncover problem areas or even to know what to look for in problem areas," said SGC Engineering's Chris Wilber. "Until fully automated UAS becomes reality, it is important that a competent and qualified pilot, and a payload/sensor operator is deployed for inspections, especially in hazardous and difficult-to-reach environments."

Wilber pointed out, though, that there are signs the effective tether linking drones to humans is growing longer.

"Technology and innovation in the area of digital data, sensing technologies, unmanned systems and robotics are here to stay," Wilber continued. "In the future, inspection with remote tools as a service offering supplied by a service provider is a possibility. Lloyd's Register believes that the services a client takes on for this type of inspection will, in the first instance, be used to provide inspection information for the client's business but could also extend to help clients provide evidence for third-party requirements."

"New technologies bring improvements, but many also bring new limitations," concluded Wilber. The changes "require engineers to revisit accepted risk-management techniques, develop their standards, procedures and methodologies and apply their experience in new ways."

The energy industry already uses drones to inspect onshore oil and gas pipelines for evidence of corrosion, but UAS technology has not yet matured to the point where it can also be a viable option for monitoring offshore pipelines. DownstreamToday recently caught up with Chris Wilber, Houston-based pipeline services director with the Lloyd's Register subsidiary SGC Engineering, LLC, to discuss the outlook for using drones to inspect the complex network of underwater structures linking offshore rigs and platforms to onshore facilities. Read on for his insights.

DownstreamToday: How are offshore pipelines typically inspected, and what are the key shortcomings of the status quo?

Chris Wilber: The best inspection method is an inline inspection (ILI) method. However, a significant proportion of the world's pipelines are difficult to pig or are deemed "unpiggable," which means they cannot be inspected using ILI. Carrying out pressure tests to verify pipeline integrity has it is own disadvantages. Specifically, they do not identify the severity of flaws (other than critical flaws that result in failure) and in some case as a result of the pressure tests themselves this can result in the existing flaws increasing in size.

Additionally, pressure tests require pipelines to be taken out of service, which can be logistically challenging and also extremely costly. So the industry has started to look at direct assessment methods such flow simulations, corrosion assessments and application of statistical analysis to determine locations where the highest internal corrosion rates are expected. This helps to identify optimum locations for subsea inspection of the difficult-to-pig branch lines. New remote operated vehicles (ROV) are also being deployed in subsea non-destructive testing (NDT) applications which use digital radiography, computed tomography, and even "pulsed eddy current" techniques where measurements are taken through any non-conductive material such as insulation, protective costings, concrete and marine growth – and these are already being used with considerable success in the market.  Our own experts in Lloyd's Register have successfully used subsea ROVs with its state-of-the-art IRIS software for tracking, monitoring and visually identifying data streams.

DownstreamToday: What can drones do that existing inspection processes cannot?

Wilber:  We are seeing research themes being developed by companies in industry to consider the current way they inspect equipment or infrastructure and how this part of their business operations could be improved against cost-effective applications and risks, with particular focus on smarter collision and accident avoidance through the use of computer vision and advanced sensing technologies in open environment and confined spaces.

The use of robotic technology for inspection purposes reduces the need for personnel working in enclosed spaces and at heights. Minimizing risk across the industry by utilizing cutting-edge technology in this way is of great importance to the energy industry. This technology provides a real opportunity to decrease the number of falls and fatalities that occur due to traditional methods of working at heights, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, Safe-Work Australia and the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.


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Matthew V. Veazey has written about the oil and gas industry since 2000. Email Matthew at mveazey@downstreamtoday.com

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