Need for Autonomous Aerial and Underwater Vehicle in Oil and Gas Industry

With increase in urbanization and industrialization, demand for oil and gas is expected to grow at a relentless pace in forthcoming 10 years. Giant fields which were discovered 30 years back are declining in their production and this situation has encouraged oil and gas companies to discover new conventional and non-conventional resources in remote locations both onshore and offshore. These new resources are sometime so remote, that it is impossible for anyone to access and carry out exploration and production activities. With advent of new technologies such as drones and robots, the challenges faced by operators in such unpredictable and hostile environment can be mitigated. Drones are the most cost-effective and efficient inspections and monitoring methods.  These unmanned vehicles whether aerial, ground or underwater possess unmatched capabilities and carry out tasks what humans cannot or would otherwise take much more resources and time to perform.

It is highly likely that in future, oil and gas operations will autonomously run by robots, replacing field workers. With the combined effort of drones and robots, upstream operational cost can be significantly reduced. The drone and robotic market has tremendous growth potential, with an estimated market size of $81.4 billion by 2022. In next 3 to 5 years oil and gas industry is planning to increase its investment on drones and robotics, from 15% to 28%.

Applications of Drones and Robots in Oil and Gas Value Chain:


Benefits of Using Drones and Robots in Oil and Gas Industry:

Midstream: Pipeline traverse through thousands of kilometers and sometime to remotest location where human access is impossible. These pipelines require periodic monitoring and maintenance, which include checking right-of-way (ROW) for leak detection including dead or discolored vegetation, pooling of liquid on the ground, dirt or debris blowing up from the ground or unusual fog and clouding and hostile damages by external sources to the pipeline system. UAVs can provide a perfect aerial view of the above ground leak indicators, allowing the operator to mitigate a potential critical situation at an early stage. Drones with special optical devices and sensors provide a safe method to inspect locations that are hard to reach or are dangerous for operators to access. With the help of infrared and thermal imaging, drones will be detecting heat loss and identify any potential leak in the pipeline, where hotspot might indicate structural weakness.  In case of emergency situation such as leakage from the pipeline or an explosion, a UAV could help in monitoring the situation and help the operator in aiding the emergency response team. Drones are also used for radiation monitoring and measurements.

Upstream: In upstream drones and robots can find a wider application from exploration to production phase of an asset.  The exploration phase consists of surveying of large endless area in order to find the prospective oil and gas presence; this can be tedious and time consuming.  Sometimes these locations are extremely hard to access by human and could be hostile as well.  A UAV with its wide coverage and perfectly calibrated sensors can exactly pin point the desired location and provide a live feed to the operator sitting miles away. This can help in saving substantial expenditure on expensive survey vessels and resources. In offshore during drilling phase drones can help in monitoring the entire operation and also robotic arms can be used to move heavy equipment. During the production phase they can help in monitoring various process conditions and leak detections, if any. Drones can also help during the construction phase of offshore platforms to identify the progress of constructions and quality assurance of the fabricated structures.

Downstream: Refinery and petrochemical set-up is complex and hazardous environment, which can be hostile for people working in the facility. UAVs in a refinery and petrochemical facility are used for inspection. Assets that drone can cover include high, live, or difficult to access including live flare stacks, chimney stacks, cooling towers and vents, storage tanks, elevated pipe ranks, buildings, roofs, ducting, gantries and walkways. The key challenge that oil and gas industry faces today is cost savings, as most of the inspections are carried out whilst the asset is still, for example live flare. The cost of shutting down a plant for the sake of inspection can run to million dollars per day. By using a UAV the plant needs to be shut down only when the data collected have identified maintenance issue which needs to be addressed. Drones can also help in maintaining the health and safety of the worker as most of the inspections are done at dangerous height and also with the operators being exposed to dangerous chemicals. Using a UAV can prevent placing the workers in potential hazardous and risky environment. The quality of data obtained through drones is superior and as drones can be flown closer to the assets, relevant and accurate data along with live commentary can be provided.

Growth Potential in Drones and Robotic Industries: Oil and Gas industry is traditionally highly complex and hazardous in nature. Every year more than $37 billion is spent on monitoring and inspections alone.  Apart from high cost of monitoring and inspection, the amount of human efforts required and the time taken for the activity are extremely high, with limited accuracy. With the advent of drone technology and robotics, same task which would generally take days and months can be accomplished in a few hours, thereby saving time, money, and human effort. The market for drones and robots is projected to grow provided the regulations for the use of these products are in place and allow the operator to use those without any inhibition. Technological advancement is another factor which can prove deterrent to the growth of this market.  Oil and gas industry produces large amount of raw data, which have to be processed and analyzed in order to take the course of action. A drone or robot should be able to process these data faster in order to reduce response time. For this purpose artificial intelligence (AI) based smart sensor has to be incorporated in drones, so that it can learn with time and take decision on its own. We are likely to witness a time where drones and robots will operate the entire oil and gas facilities on their own and completely replace field operators.


Top players in Drone Services for Oil and Gas Industry:

Conclusion: Oil and Gas industry is witnessing unprecedented challenges such as declining oil price, earlier maturity of giant oil and gas fields, skilled manpower shortage and remote locations of new conventional and unconventional resources. The main focus of oil and gas industry currently is to reduce cost and optimize their operations through smart investments in latest technologies. Drones and robots will not only reduce the operational cost of oil and gas assets, but will also reduce the human efforts and time required by a person to complete the same activities. The future drones will be smarter and faster in processing the humungous data produced from the assets and will also independently take the decision for further course of actions, through its AI capabilities.


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