In this blog, we discuss the role of drones and the key factors organisations should consider when exploring potential applications.

Why is drone technology showing the strongest growth in the oil and gas, utilities, and marine sectors? Is it purely due to heightened security threats?

It’s actually about much more than that. The threat of malicious attacks on sites critical to national and global infrastructure is very real, a fact which has triggered increased interest and investment in all forms of security solutions serving these sectors.

Importantly, however, while drones offer a highly mobile and, therefore, rapidly deployable means to expand surveillance reach as part of the wider security matrix, they also offer a way to access and monitor areas without needing to deploy human resources. This is the crux of the current and predicted growth in commercial sectors.

Areas too remote (and therefore too expensive) to manually inspect regularly – for example, pipelines or substations in geographically challenging regions – can now be inspected in detail via camera-mounted drones. In many cases, this is replacing costly and less effective approaches such as helicopter deployment; as well as being more expensive to run, helicopters also have a disadvantage in size and manoeuvrability.

With drones, hazardous-area zones – where chemicals, processes, or environmental factors make human presence a potential safety risk – can be checked without endangering workers and, importantly, without ceasing operational activity. In Qatar, for example, one company uses drones for flare stack inspection to avoid costly shutdowns and improve safety protocols. In this context, drone technology significantly improves site maintenance and workforce safety.

Have any big names already started using drones in this way?

Yes. Many of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including BP and Chevron, have quickly recognised the benefits of using drones to help spot infrastructure and maintenance issues. The offshore industry also boasts ‘big name pick-up’. Maersk, for example, has carried out feasibility testing for adopting drones as part of its supply process, delivering provisions to its tankers. They estimate the potential cost savings to be $9,000 per vessel annually.

The European Maritime Safety Agency uses drones to monitor sulphur and carbon dioxide levels emitted from commercial ships.

This particularly interesting and important example highlights that drones used in this context can capture much more than visual data. They can be fitted with numerous technologies, ensuring they are equipped to fulfil the required maintenance and safety checks. Examples can include using thermal cameras to identify pipeline hot spots (indicating structural weakness), to collecting live chemical composition readings with specialised sensors.

Can data captured by drones, whether visual or non-visual, be integrated with other site systems using a command and control solution?

Absolutely. While the method of deployment may be new, i.e. the drone technology itself, the devices they carry are simply edge devices that you may find in any number of traditional security or process systems. Any organisation already using, or planning to adopt, an open protocol security and surveillance solution to collate, integrate and interrogate data from multiple source points and site sub-systems – to gain a more holistic view of site operations – can ensure that drone-captured data is part of that process.

Does the fact a drone is a moving object cause an issue?

Not in itself. If you think about it, mobile solutions – for example, car-mounted and body-worn cameras – are commonplace and often integrated as part of public space or critical infrastructure systems. The principle is just the same.

The challenge is actually more physical than technological. Weight, in particular, is a key consideration. This point brings us back to purpose. The camera or sensor type will vary according to the task set. For example, if a drone is sent to measure gas emissions, certain gases are only detectable by thermal cameras at specific wavelengths. Therefore, more than one device may be needed. Similarly, the required range and nature of view will dictate the type and number of camera and sensor combinations. The heavier the payload, the more robust the drone must be to ensure smooth and steady weight carriage and data transmission (which, in turn, has implications for power consumption).

Weather conditions are also a factor. For example, offshore platform maintenance inspection drones must withstand challenging wind, rain and corrosive salt conditions. Image stabilising and camera heating systems may be a necessary weight addition.

With all this in mind, the most important thing for organisations adopting drone technology to focus on is having clear and defined usage objectives. A wholesale approach that seeks to use a single drone for multiple purposes could be costly and inefficient.

Is there an image latency issue with data captured by drone-mounted technologies?

It depends entirely on the application. It’s quite common now for drones to have IP streaming capability, which means they are equally useful for delivering a real-time view for providing long-term status data. It’s one of the reasons you will, for example, see drones used more and more in disaster recovery scenarios, as they provide a safe mechanism for clear and accurate views in dangerous or difficult settings. In the oil and gas sector, for instance, drones can provide live feedback on oil spillage regarding where oil may spread and at what rate. Data latency will, of course, be affected by network capabilities and the distance that information has to be transmitted – just as any other mobile device would be.

Latency issues are more likely to be related to drone control, but this will become less of a factor as technology develops.

What are the key considerations for organisations contemplating the use of drone technology?

Distance is a key factor as this has knock-on implications regarding payload and, ultimately, the application’s feasibility and operating costs. For example, if adopted for train track or pipeline inspections, drones may be required to cover a significant distance, which requires more power or lighter units that maximise charge to accommodate lengthy usage periods.

However, returning to the earlier point about usage objectives, a lighter load may not be feasible depending on the data required – for example, if a cooled thermal camera is needed in conjunction with an optical solution to gain the information required for detailed inspection. Organisations using drones as data sources must be aware of the larger equation.

Data usage is another important point – particularly when considering drone technology as part of a fully integrated surveillance, security, and site management solution. Organisations must consider how data obtained can best inform other site systems and procedures.

For example, power distribution companies increasingly use drone technology to inspect power lines. In this scenario, the company may want to use visual data obtained from the drone to trigger automated maintenance protocols. Using security and surveillance software to unify site subsystems, data relayed from the drone showing damage to the power line could create an on-screen alert at an Alarm Receiving Centre. This alert could prompt a maintenance workflow, which, on verification by the operator, would schedule appropriate action. For example, the dispatch of the nearest crew available, providing them with the relevant location coordinates and instructions. 

By thinking about drone-captured data as single-use information and using it to drive operational processes, efficiencies can be achieved on several levels.

The benefits have been demonstrated, which is why we are already seeing big-name companies pioneer drone-centric inspection and operational systems. The only real obstacles are mindset and unfamiliarity with a new form of technology. Once organisations understand how this technology should be deployed, they may find drone technology viable and useful.