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New Bakken workers? Oil, gas industry shows interest in drones

“Drone central.”

“The Silicon Valley for unmanned aircraft.”
North Dakota.
With the oil and gas industry in the western side of the state always looking to be more efficient, and ongoing research at the University of North Dakota on the eastern edge, North Dakota could be the petri dish for future commercial applications of unmanned aircraft.

As it works on a proposed rule, the Federal Aviation Administration recently announced it’d accept applications for certain commercial uses of drones, and it’s already heard interest from the oil and gas industry.

From pipeline inspections to detecting the emissions of a flare, drones could be used to do oilfield jobs too dangerous or costly — whether in time or money — for humans to do.

Dirty, dangerous, dull There’s a moniker for jobs drones could do for humans: the dirty, dangerous and dull ones.

For oil and gas, that could mean pipeline inspections and jobs that put humans at risk.

At an unmanned vehicles conference last week, the FAA’s Jim Williams promoted the use of the aircraft to decrease risks for workers and save money.

“Have you ever seen what a flare stack looks like? These flames can shoot high up into the air. It’s a little hot,” he said. “Currently, the flare stacks can only be inspected when production is shut down because of the risk to the workers who have to climb the stack. The company can save time and money if the inspection can occur while the flare stack is ignited.”

Drone sensors could also detect what kinds of volatile organic chemicals exist in the natural gas being flared off, said Doug McDonald, president of the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

AUVSI President Michael Toscano said drones could eliminate the prohibitive “weakest link” in an operation: the safety of human beings.

For example, with weather — which in North Dakota dictates oil production — drones can outlast humans.

“How many times do you have operations cancel because of either bad weather or restricted because of weather or darkness or whatever?” Toscano said.

McDonald painted drones as the solution to most obstacles for humans.

“If they don’t get stuck in a snowstorm, if they don’t get exposed to some petroleum byproduct, if they’re not having to climb up and down a rig, it’s obviously safer,” he said, “probably cheaper at the end of the day as well.”

And while the FAA is still working on proposed rules for the commercial use of drones, with the small aircraft proposal expected this fall, the group announced at the unmanned vehicles conference in Orlando, Fla., this week that it’ll take applications for exemption requests.

Williams told conference attendees that four industries — including power line and pipeline inspection, and oil and gas flare stack inspection — are considering filing the exemption requests.

The announcement “got everybody more excited,” Toscano said.

A pipeline company, for example, would submit to FAA the route of the line, the reason it’s safe to monitor with drones — no air traffic, no humans in the area, etc. — in its application.

Related: Drones Land in North Dakota

Pipeline inspections Pipeline companies nowadays use helicopters or fixed-wing planes to do flyovers of the line’s path.

Soon, that could be old-fashioned.

“The way that pipelines are flown now is very archaic, typically with helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft,” said Zach Lamppa, owner of WCE Oilfield Services and the head of an ongoing research project looking at drones for pipeline inspection.

The technology from Talend Inspection Group could both detect obstructions in the line’s right-of-way, like a cow or a tree, and sense potential leaks underground.

Sensors on the aircraft, which could carry up to 20 lbs., would detect leaks by sensing the hydrocarbon in the soil. The technology would work in winter too, when the ground is covered and frozen, Lamppa said.

TIG will begin field testing in June. Researchers will dump crude on top soil in a controlled setting and then use the sensor technology to detect the difference between a hydrocarbon and water.

Even as early as 2011, industry was showing support for Lamppa’s project, and pipeline-inspecting drones in general.

Big Bakken player Hess Corp. supports anything that could increase surveillance of its facilities, — above or below ground — facilities and maintenance team lead Stacey Nachbaur wrote in a letter of support.

The technology could serve as a more cost-effective way to monitor encroachments, unauthorized excavation and leaks, Alliance Pipeline’s Michael McGrath wrote in another letter.

Public officials, too, see the value in increased monitoring of pipelines, the safety of which has become a hot topic since large-scale spills like near Tioga last year, when 20,600 barrels of oil escaped a leak.

The drones, while they’ve spurred some privacy concerns, would decrease traffic and intrusion in general in rural areas where inspectors may otherwise have to drive the land, former McKenzie County Commissioner Dale Patten said.

“Pipelines continue to be a huge component of what’s going on out here right now,” Patten said. “… Monitoring that impact, I think, is critical, and (so is) doing it in the best way possible and also the least intrusive way possible.”

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