Drones may have gained popularity as a toy for hobbyists or a tool for photographers, but they’ve evolved into valuable assets for a number of different industries. Construction companies can use them to deliver tools and materials or inspect the project in real-time without leaving the office. Farmers and agriculturists can use drones to monitor crop health, pick weeds, or spot pests in the field.
One industry that’s beginning to adopt drone technology is the petroleum industry, especially as it pertains to offshore drilling. How are drones making offshore oil inspections safer?
Safety Risks of Offshore Oil Inspections
There are a number of risks inherently associated with oil and gas inspections, even those that are carried out on land. Flammable fumes can result in dangerous fires, vehicle accidents can put inspectors and workers at risk, and hostile weather can make being on-site unsafe — just to name a few. There are always risks when working with large quantities of flammable materials like oil and other petroleum products.
Inspections on offshore drilling sites can be even more challenging, because you have the added concern of being on the ocean and all the perils that environment creates You’ve got corrosion from saltwater, the threat of rogue waves, and the fact that these offshore facilities are often the tallest structure for miles in any direction, making them the perfect target for lightning strikes that can trigger fires.
Even naturally anticorrosive alloys or those treated with weather-resistant coating can be susceptible to damage caused by saltwater corrosion. Inspections are essential to ensure these operations are as safe as possible. But getting inspectors out where they need to be can be just as dangerous, especially if the weather turns foul.
How Do Drones Make Inspections Safer?
Instead of putting an inspector on a ship or a helicopter and sending them out to each offshore platform, which can put them at risk in harsh weather conditions, drones can carry much of the workload on their metaphorical shoulders.
Drones equipped with cameras are a viable alternative to offshore inspections. They can access all areas of the offshore facility, including those that require inspection but might otherwise be hazardous to human life. They can also be piloted manually or programmed to carry out their inspections autonomously, recording the data for later review or uploading it to a cloud server.
If the drones detect a problem, they can take high-resolution images and video, and even mark the exact location with a GPS indicator so it’s easier for repair crews to find. By removing the human element from the majority of inspection tasks, drones can help make these inspections safer while ensuring they’re completed regardless of the exterior conditions that might make it unsafe for human inspectors.
From Sea to Sky
Not evert necessary inspection of an oil rig takes place above the water’s surface where flying drones can access them — but that doesn’t mean their usefulness ends there. Underwater drones are an incredible tool for inspecting supports or pipelines that run below the ocean’s surface.
The majority of these drones require a wired connection to their controller because wireless signals don’t transmit well over any distance underwater. But there are new models emerging that allow you to accomplish the same task without worrying about tangled wires or severed connections.
Benefits of Drones in the Petroleum Industry
For now, the only place you’ll find drones in the petroleum industry is in inspections, but this technology offers a plethora of benefits for companies. These devices help increase site safety, both by reducing the need for human inspectors and by keeping those inspectors out of dangerous situations. They also decrease downtime because they can accomplish the same inspections faster and more efficiently than their human counterparts.
In the long run, this reduction in downtime and improved safety also increases cost savings and reduces inspection-related accidents and the number of working hours necessary to complete each task. Some inspection tasks, such as rappelling into a confined space, can take 10-12 hours even for a skilled worker. A drone, either working autonomously or at the hand of a skilled pilot, can accomplish the same task in a fraction of the time.
Looking to the Future of Drone Technology
As drone technology continues to advance, we will likely see many new applications for drones, both within the petroleum industry and without. Eventually, these devices may be able to install hardware, or carry out repairs underwater or in areas that are unsafe or inaccessible without extreme accommodations.
While these drones will likely never entirely eliminate the need for skilled workers, they will work alongside these professionals and may be able to take over dangerous or repetitive tasks, making the entire industry safer and more efficient by their presence. Being able to take over the task of inspecting hard-to-reach or dangerous areas on an offshore drilling rig can make an enormous difference.
Author Bio: Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring how innovations change our world. She has over 3 years experience writing articles in the industrial and tech sectors.