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Drones Are Taking Oil Jobs

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The drones are coming to oil and gas and they may soon be intelligent enough to replace humans in on-site inspections. That’s what the latest experiments carried out by drone makers in the oil field suggest, with the drone makers boasting much shorter inspection times and comparable inspection accuracy.

Right now, time and accuracy of inspections are the top priorities. “If we could do that [facilities inspections] much more quickly and in many more sites at the same time using drone technology, then we're giving these companies an unprecedented level of visibility that they previously would have struggled to achieve at the same rate with the same ease,” one drone maker told Forbes’ Mark Venables.

Renner Vaughn, from drone maker Cape, also said the company is now working on boosting the machines’ “intelligence” to boost the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the inspections. Also, there is the possibility of oil company inspectors to do the inspecting themselves from their offices, via a real-time feed from the drone.

Another company, aerial intelligence supplier Measure, recently gauged the accuracy of drone inspections on a solar power facility compared to the accuracy of human inspections. The result was a near tie at 99 percent accuracy for both humans and UAVs. There was one big difference, however. The human inspection took two days. The drone inspection took just two hours.

Sure, solar installations are not oil fields, but they are energy facilities nonetheless, so the results of Measure’s study could be extrapolated and applied to the oil industry as well. It’s all about attention to detail, so to speak, and knowing what to look for, combined with the very pro-drone fact that they could get to the facility to be inspected much more quickly than humans who have to drive there.

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Drone use is on the rise in pipeline inspections as well. “Examples include looking for signs of a leak by examining vegetation that appears stressed, high-accuracy mapping and location of pipeline infrastructure, looking for vegetative encroachment, erosion or other concerns in hard-to-reach areas, and we are also working on some NDT testing by drone, to include material thickness testing of vessels and pipelines,” according to Jason Worley, CEO of another drone-using company, Asset Drone.

The oil and gas industry, however, has a long way to go to fully utilize the opportunities provided by drone technology. That’s no surprise: it is a notoriously wary industry, after all, used to doing things the way they have been done for decades. Also, drone inspections do not work 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of facilities in the wider energy industry: Measure’s study found that manual inspections bested drone ones in wind farms, for example.

Yet things are changing. Drone technology is new and there’s plenty of space for further innovation. Cost-efficiency, speed, and accuracy will continue to be top priorities for both the oil industry and its aerial intelligence services providers, so facility inspection could soon become yet another segment of oil and gas where machines begin to replace people.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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