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A Safer Place: Drone Usage In Offshore Settings

Posted on 19th August 2016

Working at sea is notoriously dangerous. We’ve already seen how drones are changing the shipping industry – but what about the offshore sector? Unmanned vehicles are increasingly common in rig inspections, flare stack maintenance, and even offshore laboratory investigations.

Drones are the way forward for many tasks in the offshore industry because of the significant safety improvements posed by the remote technology. Instead of sending a crew to investigate something, taking time and putting them in very dangerous situations, a drone can deliver preliminary footage to determine the next steps.

Being prepared when you’re out at sea is the only way to ensure success – let’s take a look at some of the ways the offshore sector are already using drones to improve safety and operational efficiency.

Whale Spotting For Offshore Giant Exxon-Mobil

Whales might be big, but they’re pretty hard to spot by traditional methods. It’s important for offshore companies to keep an eye on where whales are in the oceans, particularly any migration corridors or breeding areas. Implementing any operations without considering whale populations can cause big problems – as Exxon Mobil found when their sonar equipment confused, trapped, and accidentally killed 100 whales in a lagoon.

Exxon Mobil learned from this vital and tragic lesson by upping the use of drones in whale tracking. Traditional methods have a few problems, which drones can overcome. First, satellites used to track whales can only do so in certain positions – the creatures cannot be tracked at all times. Second, satellites can’t be relied upon when there is cloud cover.

People equipped with binoculars are the secondary method for whale tracking. This method is subject to human error alongside the simple limitations of time and resources.

Drones are able to combat all of these problems. Cloud cover is not an issue with the right payload on a UAV, and the data capture is more rapid and extensive than human surveys can produce.

Offshore companies using data captured by drones are now able to monitor wildlife movement more accurately. Models of migration and behaviour can be built, highlighting areas of importance for populations. With this information, offshore companies can create more environmentally responsible plans of action, saving potentially billions of dollars in the long term.

Survey Drones At Sea

Linking back to the Exxon-Mobil whale catastrophe, drones can help overcome similar problems. The sonar equipment used, which drew the whales in, could be replaced by two types of drone. Either a hydrographic survey with bathymetric LiDAR can be conducted above water, or a topographic survey can be conducted by an underwater drone fitted with similar technology.

The high accuracy of the equipment available for such tasks now enables offshore companies to reduce risk to the environment and animals by creating very detailed surveys. The 3D models made from such detailed data can be used for tasks such as drilling operations or rig builds, or to assess current damage to the sea bed from existing projects.

Wind Farm Project Monitoring

With more and more wind farms built at sea, the implications of drone use are huge. As well as safety inspections conducted far more safely and much quicker, Droneflight demonstrated that UAVs can be useful for something else: marketing.

Brought in to demonstrate the progress of a wind farm build, below is the video of the result. Being able to prove progress and success is especially important for investors in offshore projects, as it is much more difficult to simply visit a site!

Flare Stack Inspections And The Zenmuse XT Thermal Camera

Flare stack inspections are costly, time-consuming, and necessary. A flare stack is designed to combust huge amounts of flammable gas in a safe manner. This prevents potential explosions on an offshore operation. A flare stack must be working at total efficiency to ensure a safe and environmentally compliant operation at all times.

There are two types of inspection: full shutdown and in-service. Full shutdown means all operations in the area are closed off to make it safe for a manual inspection. The huge costs associated with a manual inspection make it an expensive exercise.

The only other way to conduct a flare stack inspection offshore without shutting down all operations would be via helicopter. This poses two problems. The first is that a helicopter can only fly within a certain range of an operational flare stack. The second is the equipment is unlikely to pick up potentially vital signs of problems such as hairline cracks, due to the distance the helicopter must retain.

Drones are here to save the day! A drone counters the huge costs associated with full shutdown manual inspections and helicopter flights. A drone can fly very close to an operational flare stack and gather far more detailed information than a manual inspection or equipment mounted on a helicopter.

A thermal imaging camera such as the Zenmuse XT Thermal allows collection of leak data: cracks and hotspots are easily identified with clear thermal imaging. The data captured with a thermal camera and/or an RGB camera is far more detailed than traditional inspection techniques. It can also be stored for future comparison of degraded structures. Finally, a drone can conduct a flare stack inspection in a significantly shorter time than either a shutdown manual or helicopter inspection.

All of these aspects, as well as the clear improvement in safety for workers, make drones ideal for offshore flare stack inspections.

Accident Investigation With Drones

Our next blog will consider accident investigation with drones in more detail, but there are a few distinct uses for offshore investigations which should be considered.

A drone can be sent out to investigate a whole variety of things post-incident. For example, during an oil spill disaster a drone can accurately map the spread of oil. It could also provide data to build a model of currents to help predict further spread, enabling environmental impact to be mitigated as much as possible.

Drones can also be used in air accident investigations when an aeroplane has been lost at sea. The highly detailed cameras are ideal for spotting small details such as floating debris, and when equipped with thermal cameras may even help in a survivor rescue operation.

To read about accident investigation with drones in more detail, keep an eye out for our next blog!