Offshore Safety: Drones Inspect Rigs

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 @ 03:08 PM gHale

When it comes to a big safety issue, there is no doubt oil rig inspection is one of the ultimate dangerous endeavors.

Traditionally, rig workers dangle from a wire, sometimes in gale-force winds, to manually log wear and tear. Assessments include the flare stacks breathing fire.

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Now drones are picking up and ensuring a more machine-like inspection process for the platform. These drones come equipped with high-definition and thermal cameras that can save time, cut costs and give a big boost to safety.

“(Platforms) will rust a lot, particularly in the North Sea where rigs designed to last 20 years are lasting more than 40,” said Chris Blackford, Sky Futures’ chief operations officer in a Bloomberg report. “They are continually getting cracks and physical damage from the waves and need to be refurbished and fixed.”

London-based Sky Futures is a drone inspection company specializing in the oil and gas industry BP, Shell, Apache, BG Group and Statoil are among its clients.

Sky Futures is not the only company focusing on drone protection. Cyberhawk, PrecisionHawk and SenseFly are a few others working the drone scene.

Blackford said business is doing quite well, where demand more than doubled in the last year.

At the start of 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration finally relaxed its stance on drones flying in U.S. airspace, giving companies like Sky Futures access to the world’s largest offshore market. “We will continue doubling, if not tripling, revenues over the next three to five years,” Blackford said.

Inspections involve sending one drone operator and one engineer out to a rig to fly a small aerial vehicle around the platform, building a 3D model of the structure and mapping any anomalies.

“What we can capture in five days using a drone could take eight weeks with human inspectors,” Blackford said. “We can even inspect the flare stacks while in production, which saves money.” Avoiding a shutdown can save more than $4 million, the company said.

Once they capture the data, it’s analyzed using proprietary algorithms and presented through an online portal, instead of a traditional paper report. Each flaw ends up flagged in red, amber or green, based on urgency. Thanks to lasers, Sky Futures’ drones can track cracks and corrosion and map how they evolve over time. They can even sniff for gas leaks.

The next milestone for inspection drones is automating their flight.

“We still have to send out an oil and gas inspection engineer and a drone pilot. Our vision is total automation,” Blackford said.