Drones, Robots Could Play Central Role in Preventing Next Oil, Gas Disaster

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SNL Daily Gas Report

July 13, 2017

As safety and environmental risks have taken center stage in national debates over oil and gas infrastructure, technology developers have quietly been retooling drones and robots to help keep closer tabs on the systems underpinning the fossil fuel industry.

“The worldwide network of oil and gas transmission pipelines makes up a huge system for safe transport of an ever-increasing volume of hydrocarbons,” researchers from the University of Aberdeen said in a recently released study. “Traditional monitoring systems based on foot patrol and helicopter can be supported and supplemented by small UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones], particularly in remote and difficult areas, where this technology may provide mission flexibility and cost-effectiveness.”

Avitas Systems, launched June 13, is using drone and robotics technology to further inspections on oil, gas and other energy and transportation infrastructure.

Boston-based Avitas Systems, a GE Ventures company launched in mid-June, is in the business of trying to do just that with both drones and robots. To locate and document leaks on complex infrastructure, such as processing facilities, Avitas Systems can operate so-called crawler robots, which climb steel surfaces using magnetic tracks and wheels, the company said. The robots can use infrared and ultrasonic technology, among other data collection tools, and can map their findings.

“Autonomous robots can capture images and insights that help detect asset defects in places where humans often can’t go when inspecting machines,” Alex Tepper, Avitas Systems’ head of corporate and business development, said in a recent email.

Making it easier to find pipeline leaks could help operators minimize emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Although the Trump administration has rolled back some of the Obama-era methane emissions regulations from oil and gas facilities, a number of states have regulations in place to limit methane emissions from upstream sources. Environmental groups continue to push for tighter restrictions, and the public has also increasingly put pressure on the industry for safety-related concerns from the well-head to distribution lines.

Methane emissions from petroleum systems have been trending downward, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory, and methane emissions from natural gas systems were more than 16% lower in 2015 than in 1990. Still, environmental groups and some regulators have expressed concerns about the climate impacts of ongoing methane emissions, along with the health effects in communities near fossil fuel infrastructure.

Drones and similar technologies may be caught in the political crossfire when it comes to regulatory support for emissions and safety-related inspections on oil and gas systems, David Spence, a professor of law, politics and regulation at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a July 6 email. Lacking a national regulatory push for increased methane emissions monitoring, technological advances that would help companies improve their monitoring capabilities may get a lukewarm reception, Spence said.

“With natural gas prices so low, industry seems disinclined to participate in developing new regulations for leakage now, and polarized politics makes it harder for both sides to endorse these kinds of compromises,” Spence said. “Many environmental groups are now against all fossil fuels, making the improvement of pipelines, as opposed to their abolition, a difficult sell.”

Still, pipeline safety is at least a bipartisan issue, and industry, regulators and environmentalists have collaborated successfully in the past where they have found common ground, he said.

“In the long run, pipeline companies could work with moderate environmental [groups] to endorse sensible monitoring strategies for preventing and responding to pipeline leakage problems,” Spence said, adding that drones would be a useful tool to find problem spots, especially since leak rates are typically highly irregular across systems.

Drone-based technology could have the capacity to fill in an information gap in operators’ understandings of their systems, the University of Aberdeen study said. Oil and gas infrastructure requires continuous monitoring for maintenance, safety and security, and specialized equipment, such as thermal video or methane detectors, can be drone-mounted to give operators a better shot at detecting anomalies before they become serious problems, the researchers said.

“Unlike other infrastructures, the major risk of failure of an oil or gas pipeline derives from the existence of a spill or leakage threatening an environmental disaster,” the study said. “Although small UAV systems alone are not yet fully developed to carry on the entire monitoring process in oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, the technology is already reliable to enhance inspections and to support more traditional monitoring systems.”

Avitas Systems uses algorithms to analyze the collected data in combination with external information, such as weather, to evaluate and predict risks. The goal, Tepper said, is to refocus inspection services on anticipated risk with predictive analytics, rather than doing inspections on the basis of set time intervals. The company is already doing weekly inspections for existing clients and partnering with other customers, Avitas Systems said.

“This kind of technology is evolving at a rapid pace,” David Green, a professor at the University of Aberdeen’s school of geosciences and one of the researchers on the drone study, said in a statement. “One of the main benefits of using drones for this analysis is that they can be programmed to cover large areas in a systematic way, as well as get to difficult to reach areas. Not only would this be more cost-effective, but it allows inspectors a flexible solution to any issues of restricted access, which may prove crucial in identifying a problem.”

The study was published in May in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences.

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