Oil rig inspection is a dangerous business. Traditionally, in the United States, “roughnecks” dangled from a wire, in gale-force winds if needed, to manually log wear and tear on the girders.
Assessments include giant chimneys – called flare stacks – that belch fire during million-dollar-a-day shutdowns. Increasingly, the industry has found that swapping abseiling humans for small drones equipped with high-definition and thermal cameras can save time, cut costs and improve safety.
“These are large metal structures in a big pond of seawater. They will rust a lot, particularly in the North Sea where rigs designed to last 20 years are lasting more than 40. They are continually getting cracks and physical damage from the waves and need to be refurbished and fixed,” says Chris Blackford, the Sky Futures’ chief operations officer.
Sky Futures – headquartered in London – is a drone inspection company specialising in the oil and gas industry and counts BP, Shell, Apache, BG Group and Statoil among its clients. It is one of a handful of companies – including CyberHawk, PrecisionHawk and SenseFly – finding commercial applications for drones.
“We decided to focus on oil and gas because the barriers to entry are very high, but there are real problems to be solved and the economics were better, despite the very low oil price,” Mr Blackford says.
Business, he adds, is booming. Although the first drone inspections were carried out five years ago, demand for Sky Futures’ and Cyberhawk’s services has surged, more than doubling in the last year alone.
Outside of the West, Sony plans to offer commercial drone services targeting the construction, logistics and agriculture industries from the first half of next year.
The company’s Aerosense venture is making automated drones to capture high-definition images and transmit them to the cloud for analysis, Sony says.
The jointly owned company with robotics firm ZMP expects sales to total about ¥10 billion by 2020, says Kotaro Sabe, the Aerosense chief technology officer.
Sony, whose Xperia smartphones have failed to gain market share, is looking to find another use for its mobile phone and digital camera technologies in the nascent drone market. The unmanned aircraft industry may be worth US$82 billion by 2025 in the US alone, and has already attracted investments from Google, General Electric and Qualcomm despite privacy and safety concerns.
“It’s difficult to expect growth in the smartphone business with smartphones alone, which is why we are looking at new opportunities such as this,” says Hiroki Totoki, the head of Sony’s mobile business.
Drones drew scrutiny in Japan when an anti-nuclear power protester used one to deliver a payload of radioactive material to the roof of the prime minister Shinzo Abe’s office in April. The incident prompted the government to consider strengthening regulation of unmanned aircraft.
At the start of 2015 the US federal aviation administration finally relaxed its stance on drones flying in US airspace, giving companies such as 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,” says Mr Blackford.
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,” he adds. “We can even inspect the flare stacks while in production, which saves money.” Avoiding a shutdown can save more than $4 million, the company says.
Once the data is captured it is analysed using proprietary algorithms and presented through an online portal – instead of a traditional paper report.
Each flaw is 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.
CyberHawk, founded in 2008 in Scotland, offers a similar service to oil and gas companies as well as inspecting renewable energy plants with wind turbines, communications towers, pipelines and railway lines and bridges.
Cyberhawk’s commercial director, Phil Buchan, says his customers do not care about the drones, only the data. “They care about the information you can give them and the decisions you can help them make.”
Mr Blackford agrees: “We view ourselves as a data business and not a drone business.”
North Carolina’s PrecisionHawk has served the oil and gas industry by mapping the ice roads across remote areas of Alaska. In the past, coming within five miles of a polar bear den would have meant the replanning of routes at a cost of millions of dollars to avoid the animals. PrecisionHawk’s drones can identify the dens in advance.
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,” says Mr Blackford.
The trouble is, drone technology is not yet good enough.
“Once aircraft know where other vehicles and obstacles are and they have the ability to safely avoid collisions and areas of known traffic density, it will open up many new applications,” says Jeremy Howitt, who oversees drone research at Qinetiq.
Beyond oil and gas, there are plenty of other applications for these airborne inspectors.
“Oil and gas is a big vertical, but the same technology applies to lots of industries – wind farms, solar, other refineries, pipelines and other fixed infrastructure,” says Simon Menashy, the investment director at venture capital firm MMC Ventures, which invested $4m in Sky Futures in May. That is before even looking at construction and agriculture. “There is lots of opportunity,” he adds. Still, several other countries such as Canada and France have been faster to permit commercial drone flights than the US, a government study found.
While the FAA is still finalising proposed regulations allowing drones weighing less than 25 kilograms to fly for hire, other nations have been permitting such flights since as early as 1996, according to a government accountability office report on Monday.
Canada has even granted blanket approvals for people flying the smallest drones, weighing less than 6kg, according to the report.
In France and the United Kingdom, governments have begun permitting limited flights beyond a drone operator’s view. Such flights will not be permitted initially under the FAA’s proposed rules.
That proposal contains many similarities to drone-flight restrictions in other nations, the GAO said.
The FAA has said it expects to finalise the rule by the end of this year.
Until then, the FAA has been granting waivers for drone operations. As of Monday, it had approved 1,201 such exemptions.
The FAA administrator Michael Huerta has told Congress the US has had to move more slowly because it has far more aviation traffic than other countries.
The US also faces a challenge with drone safety as incidents in which the unmanned vehicles fly too close to traditional aircraft rise swiftly.
There were 650 such incidents through August 9 this year compared with 238 for all of 2014.
Still, the potential of drones is creating a serious buzz across many sectors.