Drones and UAVs: Offshore
Updated: Jan 11
When you think of drones, you might imagine a small quadcopter with a camera, flown for fun. These small aerial vehicles have grown into a whole industry of inspection, security, and even delivery. Today we are going to take a look at how drones are changing work offshore to keep people safe, increase productivity, and deliver parts to offshore workers in record time.
Inspection and data collection
The biggest area where drones have already been successfully implemented in the offshore industry is inspection and data collection. The UK Royal Navy uses drones to inspect ships while they are at sea, reducing the need to stop operations. They are becoming very common for use in offshore oil and gas as they can fly out and inspect platforms from many angles and hard to reach places. Large structures in remote areas means hazardous conditions, especially in places like the North Sea or during inclement weather. Many companies like Shell, Maersk, Equinor, and bp have already adopted these technologies and use robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in various forms. One particularly dangerous area where they shine is inspecting flares and flare towers that would normally require stopped operations to inspect. Drones can get detailed images and thermographic data without any danger to the pilot, inspectors, and employees. They can also perform maneuvers in tight spaces, like flying under the bridge of a vessel to inspect underneath for corrosion or other damage without the need for rope teams. In an emergency situation, a UAV can be deployed quickly and without any danger to human life. Wind farm operators are also examining different ways to use drones and other robots like BladeBUG, a robot that walks on turbines for inspection and could be dropped off by a drone.
UAV with pilot near an onshore facility. Image from NS Energy.
Timeline of drone usage
Just in the last five years, drones have come a long way. In 2016, Condor Solutions inspected the Berkut Oil Rig in the Russian Far East, getting thermal imaging on the flare system in arctic conditions. Then, Texo Drone made the first drone-mounted lidar, or light radar inspection of an offshore rig in 2017. According to Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Texo’s T28 drone spent 32 minutes flying in the North Sea, taking in 15GB of data. The resulting point cloud image of the whole rig was accurate to within 2mm. In 2019, Inmarsat debuted a program to integrate L-band connectivity into drones to better communicate with satellites. More recently, Equinor and F-drones have moved on to offshore deliveries.
“The Texo Drone T28 Platform on display at the SPE Offshore Europe conference in Aberdeen”. Image from Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
In 2020, Equinor completed the world’s first logistics operation to an offshore facility with a drone, travelling 80 kilometers at 5000 feet to deliver a part to the Troll field. The whole flight took just an hour using Schiebel’s Camcopter s-100, a UAV that looks like a small helicopter at 12 meters in length and over 100 kg. The part was a small, 3D printed diesel nozzle holder for this initial flight, but the unit is rated to carry 50 kg and travel more than 150 km/h. Video of the delivery is below. These deliveries could prove to be much more efficient than sending a boat or full-size manned helicopter, costing as little as $150. Their ability to deliver a needed part or document in almost any season or water conditions with no risk to human life is a huge breakthrough.
Video from Equinor.
F-drones is a new company whose goal is to deliver large payloads offshore, even at night. The startup is based in Singapore and has already delivered a 3 kilogram load to a cargo ship 5 kilometers offshore. They plan to deliver 100 kg payloads up to 100 km offshore with their new model. They are also trying to reduce waste and time of delivering items offshore. According to Yeshwanth Reddy, co-founder and CTO, “Small package deliveries to vessels or oil rigs make up a significant portion of maritime logistics...it takes 50kg of carbon dioxide emissions to deliver just 1kg of any item to a vessel in port.” This is his second drone-based startup after working on Aarav Unmanned Systems from 2013 to 2019 when he moved on for a bigger challenge. His goal is to have a smart drone that can carry a lot of weight, move quickly, not run on fossil fuels, and land easily on a moving vessel, a tricky combination. His UAV navigates using GPS and eight rotors, using a very interesting bi-plane looking design. They’ve secured funding with a test version that is half-scale at 2.3 meters and has already completed 100 flights, including delivery of cargo to a vessel.
“F-drones cofounders, Nicolas Ang and Yeshwanth Reddy, display their half-scale prototype, which is expected to start commercial deliveries later this year. F-DRONES”. Image from IEEE Spectrum.
Equinor is also using drones to sniff out methane leaks from oil and gas facilities. The United States gas industry has faced challenges with containing methane leaks, so Equinor partnered with SeekOps for their methane-emission detecting drone. The drone has been working in the Appalachian Basin onshore, but the technology can be used anywhere. SeekOps is a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) spinoff that Equinor Ventures invested in after a successful pilot in the Eagle Ford and Bakken regions. bp is doing the same west of Shetland with sensor technology developed for the Mars Curiosity Rover. The sensors are combined with a fixed-wing remote piloted air system (RPAS), which looks like a radio controlled single engine airplane. It circled the Clair field autonomously while live-streaming methane collection data. The flight lasted 90 minutes during which the drone flew more than 115 miles, setting a new record for a commercial drone flight, according to Offshore Magazine. The solution was provided by Flylogix with SeekOps sensor technology.
“Equinor is cooperating with SeekOps in the Appalachian Basin on their methane emission-detecting drone.” Image from Equinor.
Drones don’t just carry sensors, they also carry cameras, providing video and images from points of view not seen by traditional fixed point cameras. Combining a mobile drone-based camera with fixed on-the-ground cameras can provide complete awareness of an area. According to Commercial UAV News, “The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) is using drones to help with border control, pollution monitoring and the detection of illegal activities such as fishing and drug trafficking. Border patrol agents in Arizona have been testing new and smaller types of drones to support their land and maritime operations.” Facial recognition and infrared cameras could further increase the capabilities of these drones. As of 2017, Martek Marine has a dedicated aviation division for unmanned aviation services, or UAS. They offer services such as security, illegal pollution detection, fisheries protection, and detection of drug and people trafficking. The Navy already uses this technology to identify ships from miles away and send information immediately back to officials.
“bp deployed the RPAS drone by Flylogix to remotely monitor methane emissions west of Shetland [in 2019].” Image from Offshore Magazine.
Search and Rescue
All of the work on cameras, identification, and monitoring have already proved useful for on-land search and rescue operations. “Follow the drone to safety” could be the new phrase, although drones wouldn’t have to get much larger before they could transport a small human. “A drone equipped with VIDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) has been able to autonomously detect hundreds of large and small objects at sea in a variety of conditions.” according to Commercial UAV News. They can even spot and identify a stationary jetski or a buoy at 5 nautical miles. Drones can do more than just spot people - in early 2018, two boys got caught in heavy surf off the coast of Eastern Australia and a drone dropped a floatation device to them in less than two minutes. Drones can also find ships that have sent out emergency messages and assist with man overboard situations.
We covered ground-based robots in our article Robots Offshore: Spot, ANYmal, and more, and plan to cover underwater robots in the near future. Last on our list of aerial drones is one that may blur the lines between air and water: the Naviator, a drone that can fly and swim with equal ease. It can fly like a regular drone, drop into the water and navigate, then rise back to the surface and take off into the air again. The part submarine, part aircraft was created by an Associate Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers, F. Javier Diez-Garias. He originally proposed the idea to his senior students as a project: an air/water drone. They realized they had something special early on when the drone easily went underwater and back out again on its own. The waterproof design also means it’s resistant to bad weather like a rain or snow storm. The new concept could create a way to map the ocean underwater and have it be searched like Google Maps. The commercial uses are vast: “The need to map structures such as piers, bridges, oil platforms and off-shore wind turbines can be complicated since many of them have components that are both in and out of the water” (Commercial UAV News). Researchers and fish and wildlife communities are also excited at the possibilities of surveying what’s underwater and above water all at once. They were on their fifth generation of the Naviator and are working on autonomous operation, LIDAR, and 3D vision sensors as of the 2016 article, and it looks like they have gone commercial and are available at thenaviator.com.
The Naviator underwater. Image from SubUAS.
UAV technology continues to improve, with big steps forward in autonomous operation and pre-programmed flights. Chris Chung, head of strategic research projects at Lloyd’s Register, said “...rapid advancements in hardware and software, including air stabilisation, pre-flight planning tools, obstacle detection and avoidance technology, have transformed these small aircraft into viable business tools that are likened to high-definition eyes in the sky.” The next step is photogrammetry, which uses photographs to put together a 3D model to obtain relevant information. Wind and nuclear are up next as the big targets for drone technology and scanning has been used on end of life wind turbines, providing accuracy to less than 1 mm. Rigs have more distinct parts that are easier to separate and analyze, while the various parts of wind turbines look very similar, requiring more difficult analysis. Drone technology could replace many traditional inspection methods, making routine and emergency tasks safer while reducing costs of downtime. Detection capabilities continue to improve at a rapid pace and drones are now able to perform functions that humans cannot, such as infrared, ultrasonic testing, and 3D laser scanning. Better sensors complement more advanced AI and machine learning to give faster and more accurate interpretations of what the drones are seeing. They’re also coming in more shapes and sizes: multirotor, plane, helicopter, underwater, and even amphibious. All of these UAVs contribute to keeping people safe while reducing risk and waste offshore. We look forward to seeing how drone technology continues to evolve!
Happy Fun Fact Friday!