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Comment: The future of drones in the oil & gas sector

by Guest on Jun 29, 2017

Colin Chapman, president, Euro Petroleum Consultants.
Colin Chapman, president, Euro Petroleum Consultants.
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Unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned aerial systems will play an important role in future systems to improve reliability and safety of oil and gas facilities, especially in isolated or confined locations, comment RPME's regular columnists Colin Chapman and Ekaterina Kalinenko.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or so-called drones are attracting increased interest from the major oil and gas producers as well as operating companies. They can offer original solutions for inspection and monitoring of oil and gas facilities, especially in isolated or confined locations.

Just a few years ago, drones were mainly used for entertainment purposes and not many experts believed that they would be appropriate for using in process industries and hazardous areas. Now, these devices are increasingly being used for surveillance of oil and gas fields, pipelines, detecting leaks and moni-toring spills, etc., and also in refineries, sometimes substituting, where      possible, traditional operational processes and systems.

Companies such as Shell, BP and ENI recognised the potential of such devices for quite some time and have been investigating specific applications in both onshore and offshore facilities. For sure, there will be a need to establish strict rules for application of such devices in different facilities to ensure safe operations.

Huge market in the horizon

It is predicted that, by 2020, the size of global market of UAS technologies will exceed US$120 billion. Initially, these devices were quite large and expensive, but as the technology has been developing, costs started decreasing and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years. It is also expected that more sophisticated and diversified drones and other versions of UAV and UAS will become available in the market and the scope of application will expand in many countries.

There are a number of potential applications for using drones in the oil and gas industry, the first and foremost of them being improving safety through safety monitoring of facilities. These lightweight and maneuverable vehicles simplify the process of monitoring the facility, gathering important information and addressing any issues of potential emergency situations. This can be very important in hazardous areas to minimise the need for operators to be physically present in such areas.

If we look at possible applications of UAV and UAS in the downstream sector, refiners now try to put a strong focus on integrity and integration in order to improve the onstream time and performance levels, which requires large amount of data to be processed and analysed.

Accessing accurate information

Asset monitoring should enable companies to manage their facilities in a sustainable way to optimise performance and expenditure with minimal risk and maximise return and profit. Asset management practices such as predictive monitoring and maintenance contribute to less unplanned plant outages caused by asset failure.

In this case, accessing accurate information regularly and online is important – and this is where drones can be very useful. The most important part of the ‘package’ is not the instrument itself, but innovative recognition and information processing in command and control system programmes, the most important feature of which is how well they are able to integrate and build this received information into existing databases and business processes.

Shell and BP are among the global oil and gas industry leaders, which implement and invest in UAV and UAS technologies. Shell has an ambitious plan to ensure that the company’s entire supply chain is equipped with ‘smart’ technologies, including drones and sensors in the not too distant future. BP is using those in their remote control centres. Some countries are pioneering in this field, including China, USA, France and Germany.

Focus on Russia

In countries such as Russia, there can be many useful applications for UAV and UAS technologies due to the huge landmass and large number of isolated facilities. Rosneft and Gazpromneft are particularly interested in the applications of UAV and UAS technologies to improve monitoring of their oil and gas facilities across the country.

Gaspromneft has built a special process automation technopark for developing and implementing such devices in cooperation with local scientific, research and innovation centres. They are starting to use such devices in their upstream, midstream and downstream facilities all across Russia. Drones are most widely used for control and monitoring of pipelines in the central part of Russia and in Siberia, helping minimise environmental risks.

Advanced models are constructed taking into account some previous concerns like loss of control due to severe weather and climate conditions, i.e., fog and wind, high and low temperatures (now operating temperature range is from -40 to +40 degrees Celsius), and also with higher speed and area of coverage (up to 70 kilometre of pipeline per hour).

In the downstream sector, drones can be very useful for surveying during the construction phase. Drones are useful for monitoring the amount and quality of supplies and monitoring progress parameters, construction work control and regulation, security of site, etc. Such applications are being implemented by Gazpromneft at a large refinery unit construction site and this practice could be then used as a benchmark and analogue for other similar projects  in the future.

Another large project in Russia is the Amur gas processing plant, which is also one of the large-scale projects, to include pilot use of custom-made drones for data analysis during the construction phase using photo site plan and point cloud to monitor the process and control different KPIs.

Drones can also be used for monitoring the boundaries of the facilities which is becoming of increased importance in all regions of the world. In Russia, such facilities can be very large and spread across several kilometres; hence, the advantages are clear, if a reliable system is developed. Rosneft is planning to engage more local-made drones for their Siberian oilfields as well as for geologic exploration in hard-to-reach areas.

Asset-conscious approach

ExxonMobil is using UAS for the inspection of their flare system in facilities at Sakhalin. This system proved its efficiency in different weather conditions. Certain parts of the facilities were not included in the inspection reports previously because of lack of accessibility during normal operations. Use of drones has allowed improved monitoring of these important facilities and this will help in maintenance, repair and future operations.

These systems started as a way of handling and managing big data to adapt to changing environment and gain competitive advantage of achieving goals of safe operations and effective maintenance. Human factor is stated to be one of the most frequent causes to process incidents, thus eliminating impact of that factor where possible, i.e., in process monitoring. This decreases failure rate and error frequency, consequently positively affecting the results. It should be noted that use of such systems requires very experienced operators to be able to achieve best results.

‘Asset-conscious’ approach is the new style of life that is being introduced in all processing industries and has already brought significant change to the oil and gas business, and soon will completely transform and reshape both client and contractor markets. For sure, drones will play an important role in future systems to improve reliability and safety of oil and gas facilities particularly in isolated locations.

Colin Chapman is president and Ekaterina Kalinenko is project director at Euro Petroleum Consultants (EPC). EPC is a technical oil and gas consultancy with offices in Dubai, London, Moscow, Sofia and Kuala Lumpur. EPC also organises leading conferences, including ME-TECH – Middle East Technology Forum for Refining and Petrochemicals – which takes place in Dubai annually. For further details, please visit www.europetro.com


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