Drones in the Downstream: A Learning Curve

Drones in the Downstream: A Learning Curve
"A little education can go a long way" toward advancing the technology's deployment in the downstream, says U.S.-based pro.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – often simply referred to as "drones" – can give owners of downstream facilities unprecedented levels of detail about their operations while helping them to save money. Moreover, the list of possibilities for deploying the flying robots continues to grow.

So says Steven Fargo, president of Texas-based DataWing Aerial Analytics. He added, however, that refiners, petrochemical manufacturers and other potential downstream beneficiaries of UAS inspections often must overcome a learning curve about what the devices can do for them.

"Oftentimes, a little education can go a long way and once operators understand our capabilities, they find that drones can be a safe and very cost-effective tool," Fargo told DownstreamToday.

Keep reading to find out what Fargo has to say about the changing role of UAV in the downstream, misconceptions about the devices, their impact on the workforce and more.

A Learning Curve
DownstreamToday: Given current technological and regulatory limitations, what are the key things that drones can do for refiners, petrochemical manufacturers and others in the downstream?

Steven Fargo: There is definitely an immediate benefit to using drones in the downstream services. The most obvious and most beneficial offering is any vertical structure inspection that is typically performed via crane, scaffolding, or manned helicopter. No longer do companies have to put people in risky situations to get "eyes on" a particular component or structure. Instead, drones can be used to provide real-time, high definition video and image capture. For example, DataWing has helped several companies save millions of dollars in shutdown costs normally associated with flare tip inspections during times when repairs are likely or before a turn-around. More importantly, drones make regular inspections for preventive maintenance a cost-effective option; knowing what is happening at the top of your flare will better support the operational decision making process. All of this can be done given current U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, but it takes a professional and experienced organization (with strong insurance) to achieve an offering that is ready for routine operations. DataWing combines the expertise of both military fighter pilots and oil and gas plant and facilities engineers to provide the best service possible.

DownstreamToday: Which new capabilities do you anticipate in, say, the next five to 10 years?

Fargo: I think in five years it will be very common to see drones routinely flying, which will require some advancements in autonomy and swarm technology. Additionally, the increased use of analytics based off visual imagery will continue to improve. DataWing is currently working towards several solutions that take advantage of computer vision and machine learning which allows us to automatically provide analysis that didn't exist before or took a human much longer to execute. Identifying and locating problems or changes will become very common place.

DownstreamToday: Are there any common concerns or misconceptions that you've encountered in regard to deploying drones near downstream facilities?

Fargo: People tend to have a negative perception of drones, mostly due to what they see in the news about some hobbyist who didn't know what they were doing. That perception is difficult to overcome, but in our experience, once we are on location and they witness the professionalism and safety protocols expected of any service company entering a plant, people are quickly accepting.

To address the concerns of our clients we first start by making sure our personnel are fully trained and carry all industry standard certifications. Many of our employees have experience in oil and gas-related work and we also have in-house environmental, health, and safety personnel who keep the pilots up to date on our training. On location, we use job safety analysis (JSA) worksheets and sometimes perform hot work permits as well. A very common question is if the drone is intrinsically safe, which it is not. I am sure it will not be long before an intrinsically safe drones will carry the Class 1, Division 2 approval, but for now we mitigate the risk. We also bring along optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras to scan the areas for any fugitive emissions before flight and always stay upwind, especially when inspecting flares. Our pilots and observers have very specific roles and everything we do on location is via strict checklist discipline. From briefing bystanders to communication, everything is practiced and perfected to provide the safest operation possible.

DownstreamToday: The FAA is implementing new rules for certain drones used for routine commercial purposes. What impact will these rules have on drones used to inspect refineries, petrochemical plants and other downstream facilities?

Fargo: This rule is very helpful for a company like ours and it shows the FAA is willing to work with commercial providers to create a framework within which we can legally operate. Specifically, this Part 107 rule, which goes into effect on August 29, helps us in two main areas with regard to plants and facilities. The first is flight near "non-participants." Before this rule, drones were not allowed to be operated within 500 feet of anyone who was not participating in the project. With the new rule, we simply cannot fly directly over the top of someone who is not participating, which definitely allows for more flexibility when operating in an area that may have lots of personnel. Also, the new rule allows for flight around vertical structures that are higher than 400 feet. Previously 400 feet was typically the highest altitude that drones could fly without special exception. Now, as long as the pilot keeps the drone within 400 feet of the structure we can go as high as we need to perform the inspection.

These rules will undoubtedly continue to evolve and it is important that we communicate with our clients and the industry about what is legal and what is safe. Ultimately, DataWing's goal is integrate drones into everyday routine operations.

DownstreamToday: Have you observed, or do you anticipate, changes to any downstream job roles and responsibilities tied to the use of drones?

Fargo: I think we will see different layers of drone use make its way into the industry. For specialized jobs such as inspections, I think drones will continue to take the time-intensive, manual inspections, especially if drones can do it more safely. The drone industry still needs the experience and expertise of those inspectors so I think jobs will continue to transform. It's all about the data and what you do with it, which is why DataWing continually reaches out to folks who have experience in infrastructure inspection to bring in to our team so we can continue providing that service. When we provide that service, however, we do it cheaper, faster and better.

Additionally, I think you will see some organizations integrate drones internally where it makes sense. One area may be emergency response or as part of the contingency planning. If someone has the right training to operate a drone and there is some type of a disaster on a facility location, oftentimes an aerial perspective can be very helpful. DataWing also helps organizations set up internal drone programs by providing the equipment, training and materials necessary to operate.

(For another perspective about drones in the downstream, read the first article in this two-part series.)