On a recent inspection out at sea, Frankie Suarez examined the gaskets on his oil rig’s exhaust system. But he didn’t check each gasket personally.
Instead, Suarez maneuvered an unmanned aerial vehicle into position above the gaskets and used an attached thermal sensor to detect whether hot gases were escaping, which would indicate a leak.
Keeping an oil rig in working order involves a slew of inspections typically carried out over several weeks by technicians. But, increasingly, the world’s largest oil producers are using drones to supplement the work of their technicians. This new class of aerial workers has become the hottest thing in the oil industry. Kitted out with cameras and thermal-imaging sensors, the drones survey industrial infrastructure (like offshore oil rigs) seeking evidence of corrosion, leaky pipes and loose-fitting bolts. Oil companies now rely on the data that these drones—and their human operators—collect to keep the oil flowing.
“It’s not necessarily how you get from A to B. It’s all about the data and how you collect that data not only safely, but also efficiently.”
Suarez works as an inspection pilot as well as training and operational standards manager for Sky-Futures, a British company that dispatches its own drone pilots for inspection work.
Why integrate drones into the workflow of an industrial inspection?
“It’s safer, it’s quicker, and it’s more cost-effective,” says Sky-Futures CEO James Harrison.
Oil Rig Data Coursing Through the Pipes
Harrison likes to call Sky-Futures a data business, not a drone company. Drones collect still images, video, and thermal readings during a typical oil rig inspection, but it’s Sky-Futures’ accompanying software that makes the difference. Algorithms that combine machine learning and artificial intelligence sift through the photos and sensor readings to help detect things like corrosion or part defects, snuffing out problems before they ever start.
“We provide tools for engineers, who are then able to quantify how quickly and in what time period something is degrading,” Harrison says. “So you can actually measure how fast a problem is growing.”
Take, for instance, the resources and effort required to maintain the vital coating that protects oil rigs from saltwater and corrosive marine air. In conventional inspections, a technician dangles over the side of the rig and takes photos of the coating, which an engineer then examines. But rig inspections conducted by rope-access technicians can take up to eight weeks and involve shutting down production, according to Sky-Futures. On average, downtime costs $7 million per day, according to Harrison.
With a few flybys, drones can spot a problem before the first fleck of rust appears, saving time, effort and money. And a drone-aided rig inspection can take as little as three to five days.
“We can’t replace what technicians do—we can’t repair anything,” says Suarez. “But we do decrease the amount of time they spend on the rope, which is very dangerous work.”
An Aerial Assist
Human technicians might take closer looks at potential problems to determine the course of action, but it’s the drone-collected data that points them in the right direction. They know exactly where to go on the oil rig when it comes time to replace or repair a part.
Sky-Futures trains its own inspection workers, as well as oil company workers, on drone use and safety. In the United Kingdom, the company uses its own mock oil rig to teach drone operators how to be effective pilots and inspection engineers, as well as how to operate each drone’s camera and sensor equipment. Drone pilots are usually helicoptered to an offshore oil rig where they operate in two-person teams—one pilot, one camera operator—in flight increments of roughly 10 to 15 minutes.
Pilots like Suarez say it’s a vast improvement over conventional inspection techniques, which require not only teams of technicians with ropes and scaffolding, but also safety vessels trawling the waters in case a technician falls overboard.
“All of that takes a lot of time,” he says. “We can be on site immediately, and we can launch in a couple of minutes.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.