Oilfield inspections are a precarious practice in the best of conditions. In inclement weather, they become downright dangerous. Inspectors are required to scale tall structures under the assumption that the equipment is functioning properly. In the event that something has malfunctioned, they may also have to contend with a toxic environment that can vary from detrimental to deadly. It’s no surprise that the oil and gas industry was one of the first to adopt drone technology to minimize these risks.
Where an inspector will visually examine a location, they are also at the whims of available platforms and access points. There may only be a ladder on one side of a tall structure, and no platform to easily reach the other side. In comparison, a drone can easily examine every side of the structure and take a multitude of pictures for later analysis – without ever having to send an inspector into a potentially dangerous condition. Structures like combustors or flare towers can be examined without a fully decommissioning, potentially saving the company millions that would otherwise be lost time.
Less critical, but just as valuable, long range drones can patrol lengthy oil pipelines for any signs of damage. Thermal imaging augments this ability, allowing the pilot to spot issues in the pipeline before a failure even happens.
Some drone training services are even offering approved FAA UAV test sites that mimic the real world conditions that a pilot might find at an oil refinery. Setting up mock structures that are similar to refinery equipment gives valuable experience that can help drone pilots perform at a high level before they even step foot in a working refinery.
Safety is a primary concern in that type of harsh condition, as accidents can often cause much more damage than they would in less industrial locations. While it is important to avoid drone collisions or crashes in all scenarios, it is amplified by potential environments one might find in a refinery. If there is a faulty system or damaged equipment, it is possible that it would result in errant vapors. A drone crash could create a spark that would ignite these vapors – and cause untold amounts of damage. This furthers the need for practice at FAA UAV test sites ahead of real world operations. Pilots must be absolutely confident in their training, experience and knowledge of best practices before setting foot in an operating refinery.