Drones Inspections for the Energy Sector

 UAS Inspections for the Energy Sector

Last week we looked at the First Responders and Crisis Management applications for unmanned systems as an introduction to a new series on use cases for UAS (you can find that introduction post HERE). This is the second part in that series and one that will shine some light on the way that the energy sector is approaching UAS inspections. The energy sector for the purposes of this includes oil and gas, solar, and electrical grid powerlines, though wind-power, nuclear power, and tidal/geothermal power are also looking into using UAS for different needs including surveillance, monitoring, and maintenance inspections.

There are significant success stories throughout the UAS community highlighting inspections and for good reason. While generally less “autonomous” in nature, the hardware and profile of a drone operation AscTec-news-cyberhawk-roav-uav-drone-oil-gas-inspection-power-utilities-assets-masts-oil-rig-live-flare-offshoreallows users to diminish the significant risk to the operation. Perhaps the most interesting element of these market segments, is that each approaches the solution in a different way. The greatest success stories from the oil and gas sector seem to center on “drones as a service,” where oil platform management (Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, etc.) engage with companies such as Cyberhawk or Aeryon Labs to inspect flare stacks for corrosion, heat damage, and other degradation that may harm the overall system.  Meanwhile, the solar and wind energy industry has seen that both fixed-wing aircraft and rotor-craft (hexacopters and octocopters) can be assets to their operations, though generally the consensus seem to be settling on VTOL aircraft with a hexa or octo configuration. Lastly, powerline maintenance and inspection are rapidly deploying UAS for both hard to reach environments and long-distance higher altitude monitoring, experimenting with both VTOL and fixed-wing UAS.

While mixed-approaches ultimately benefit the industry as experience and understanding develop, corporate entrepreneurs seeking to implement cost-saving, safety increasing, efficiency promoting UAS don’t have the time, energy, or corporate buy-in to squander. That’s where the initial system development and understanding comes into play. Corporate entrepreneurs that fall prey to slick sails people selling off the shelf products or services in a “one size fits all” approach will find their future work more difficult or impossible. The demands and needs of each type of organization differs. This is where the Concept of Operations phase of any development process begins and why it is so vital to ensuring success for your organization.

The basic elements of any CONOPS include the following elements, discussed within the context of inspections:

  • Type of Operation

    Visual Line of Sight, Extended Line of Sight, or Beyond Line of Sight:

  1. 1024x1024Oil and Gas Inspections – While the regulatory situation in the United States is not clearly defining the timeline for BLOS and ELOS operations, it is clear the oil and gas inspections – when it comes to some operations (flare stack inspections, vertically focused inspections, and centrally located silos or perimeter maintenance)- focus generally on direct line of sight capabilities. This is a main reason for the success of drone use in this field, as VLOS operation demand does not negate the usefulness of the operation.
  2. Solar Energy Farms – VLOS is generally fine for direct inspection of infrastructure though we have witnessed need for Extended Line of Sight frequently as hills between solar arrays often require movement of GCS location and deployment. This increases time, insitu movement requirements, and number of flights.
  3. Power-line inspection – Powerline inspection will become viable and extremely important when Beyond Line of Sight operations become frequent. Two types of operations currently exist in the power-line inspection market – vertical examination of the structure and transformer condition and horizontal examination across grid sections using LiDar and Photogrammetric appraisal. The sensor load and need ultimately drives the mission requirements in this field, and therefore BLOS and ELOS will be necessary in some, but not all, cases.
  • Definition of Flight Area and Airspace

    Population Density, Expected Air Traffic, Expected Surface Traffic, Types of Buildings or vital infrastructure in the area, any confined or obstructed areas, emergency landing areas or terminal flight areas:

  1. Oil and Gas InspectionsOften these operations take place over water, in high safety requirement zones. Sensitive Infrastructure exists and therefore designs that are robust and rugged with avionics that may be able to avoid collision (as seen in the latest DJI Phantom Video Below) may be a necessity when wind gusts arise or conditions change. A crash is not tolerable in these conditions other than to ditch into water, though the oil and gas industry requires extensive SMS certification driving the need for service providers with safety as a core mission element.
  2. Solar Energy Farms – These operations often take place in dry and arid environments, in the middle of fields, on top of large buildings or rooftops, or over large areas with people, infrastructure or vehicles underneath. Systems that have flight termination capability, provide ballistic parachute, or minimize kinetic energy through construction elements or speed/descent reliability may be highly important. Higher population densities require more safety mitigation through operational assessment.
  3. Pipeline and Power-line inspection – All types of regions exist that LiDARprovide the setting for powerline and pipeline inspection. The areas may be vast and open, enclosed near buildings or infrastructure, or even along Cliffside driving the need for UAS inspection in lieu of helicopter or dangerous ground accent. This may drive fixed wing or rotor based design, may require advanced communication shielding, or prevention of R/F interference that only drones developed specifically for the organization’s unique needs may contain.
  • Conditions for Operations

    Wind Speed limitations (headwind, crosswind, gust), Turbulence restrictions, minimum visibility conditions, outside air temperature limits, outside air temperature limits:

  1. Oil and Gas Inspections – Oil and Gas installations are found all over the world and in climates from locations in the warmest and coldest regions on the planet. To identify one platform as being able to provide coverage for these locations is impossible. Interfaces that can operate in freezing conditions will not act the same as in bright, sweltering humidity and heat. Air vehicles may require de-icing capabilities, high-wind wind tolerances, or shielded internal avionics that work in freezing environments. Organizational processes that identify when and how visibility conditions can be accepted for their risk are extremely important and should be made at an organizational level, rather than an operational one. Service providers versus internal organizational operation choices need to be made ahead of time to determine who can take on the appropriate level of risk for weather or environmental happenstance.
  2. Solar, Pipeline and Power-line inspection – These elements have similarities when it comes to environment. Whether the conditions are sunny and bright, or cloudy and misting, mission capability may be impacted, as the sensor loads (Lidar, EO, IR) tend to have preferred conditions for efficiency. Understanding when a mission should or should not take place, as well was what sensor load and platform are preferred for condition effectiveness, is vital to creating a meaningful inspection program. Modularity may be a requisite for an organization, or impossible based upon the requirement for training or access to maintainers and integrators on site.
  • Payloads or Sensor Needs –

    puckadConfigurations, usability, lighting conditions, proximity to scanning environment, clarity and resolution needs, timeline for access to data, data security and management:

  1. Oil and gas Inspections – Payloads and sensor needs are driven by data requirements and resource investment. ConocoPhillips, Chevron, and Shell seem to have the same needs if you are on the outside looking in, but those who have worked with each of these companies recognize that sub-contractors, manufacturers, and even operational process differ between these companies. Where EO/IR data can be packaged and delivered for one, sensitive data may need to be stored completely differently for another. Setup of the operation themselves may require different operational approvals, and understanding these dissimilarities is vital to a successful operation.
  2. Solar Energy Farms – While I have not worked directly with solar energy inspections, their sensor needs are clearly evolving. Where once photogrammetry was preferred over LiDar, 2015 saw the demand for Lidar increase exponentially. This in turn has driven the development of new LiDar systems for UAS use such the Velodyne Puck.
  3. Pipeline and Power-line inspection – Is EO/IR enough? Do analysts at home have the same requirements as those on the ground? Is LiDAR required to make an operation effective or do some inspectors that may require less training simply need visual recognition of deterioration with extensive analytics? Is IR preferred for some infrastructure but necessary for others? As photogrammetry has evolved to nearly 99% effectiveness of sub-liminal LiDAR systems, perhaps developing a photogrammetric system utilizing EO/IR capabilities is more effective in the long-term.
  • UAS Performance Characteristics –

    Maximum altitude (not regulatory), Maximum airspeed, cruise or hover airspeed, maximum endurance, maximum range, maximum rate of climb/descent, maximum bank angle, turn rate limits, payload capacity, battery draw:utilitysubstationFLIR

  1. All Three Types – In our experience, those tasked with developing programs for UAS inclusion into current operations tend to look at the UAS Performance Characteristics more so than the rest of the CONOPS. They recognize that the platform is important and believe flight time, distance, speed, battery life, and maximum lift will drive their acquisition decision. While important, we believe it is more important to understand what mission you are trying to accomplish, what data needs exist for that mission, which sensor platform is available that meets those goals, and then decide upon mission length, location, and vehicle.

The energy sector, inclusive of all infrastructure that keeps it running, has the potential to be revolutionized by UAS more so perhaps than any other industry. As autonomy grows, regulations become less restrictive or companies begin to understand how to operate within their restrictions; more and more business uses will be discovered and effectively promoted within the UAS industry. It will be up to those creating programs now to drive the industry forward in the future, as it cannot succeed without corporate entrepreneurs taking risks, betting on progress, and implementing solutions to newly recognized inefficiencies. The next part of the series we’ll look at the agriculture sector, specifically where companies have issues and where they can benefit from better CONOPS development on the front-end.

Most importantly, it is in the best interest of all players to go through a methodical and well understood systems engineering process before taking the irreversible steps of purchase and implementation of UAS.

Some final thoughts on not simply this industry, but all industries:

  • Avoid the headaches by remembering integration of backend software to front end data acquisition, and how users in your company will effectively use the UAS information.
  • Identify your mission needs before you develop the program so you aren’t stuck with the wrong platform for the right mission.
  • Demand a tailor made hardware or software solution rather than buy off-the-shelf products with inadequate customer support.
  • Use payloads and sensors that make sense for you!

Harrison Wolf is a UAS safety & Security Expert with focuses in regulations, standards, technology commercialization, and program development. He created and teaches the Safety Management Systems (SMS) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Course, Report Writing for Aircraft Accident Investigation, and SMS for Airport Managers at the USC Aviation Safety & Security Program. Harrison is currently the Business Development & Sales Manager with VStar Systems Inc., a multi-disciplinary systems integration firm specializing in end-to-end unmanned robotics, and is the President of Wolf UAS LLC, a UAS Safety Consulting Firm specializing in developing UAS safety programs for all sizes of organizations .

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