By thinking not just about drone-captured data as single-use information, but using this to drive operational processes, efficiencies can be achieved on a number of levels.

Once a technology firmly associated with military use, drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are also known – have experienced a perception shift in recent years. This is largely attributable to their adoption within key commercial sectors.

The driving force behind such significant growth in these sectors is the realisation that drone technology offers much more than standalone surveillance; it offers a safer and in many cases more economical route to accessing and integrating data vital to site safety, efficiency, and security.

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 sectors such as oil and gas, utilities and marine - is it purely down 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 on a regular basis – for example pipelines or sub-stations 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 having to cease operational activity. In Qatar, for example, drones have recently been used by one company for flare stack inspection to avoid costly shutdowns and improve safety protocols. Used in this context, drone technology has significant implications for 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 the likes of BP and Chevron, have been quick to recognise 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 saving to be $9,000 per vessel a year.

The European Maritime Safety Agency also announced that it is planning to use drones to monitor sulphur and carbon dioxide levels emitted from commercial ships.

This is a particularly interesting and important example as it highlights that drones used in this context can capture much more than visual data. They can be fitted with any number of technologies, therefore ensuring that they are equipped to fulfil the exact maintenance and safety checks required. 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 third-party and edge devices that you may well find in any number of traditional security or process systems. Any organisation already using, or planning to adopt, an open protocol command and control solution to collate, integrate and interrogate data from multiple source points and site sub-systems – in order 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 cameras 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 range and nature of view required will dictate the type and number of camera and sensor combinations. The heavier the payload, the more robust the drone must be in order 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, drones used for offshore platform maintenance inspection will need to be capable of withstanding 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 which seeks to use a single drone for multiple purposes could end up being 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 as they are 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 providing a clear and accurate view in dangerous or difficult settings. In the oil and gas sector, for instance, drones can be used to provide live feedback on oil spillage in terms of where oil may be spreading and at what rate. This said 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 actually more likely to be related to drone control, but as the technology develops this will become less and less of a factor.

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

Distance is a key factor as this has knock-on implications in terms of 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 my 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 in order to gain the information required for detailed inspection. Organisations using drones as data sources need to be aware of the larger equation.

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

For example, drone technology is increasingly being used by power distribution companies to inspect power lines. In this scenario, the company may want to look at using visual data obtained from the drone to trigger automated maintenance protocols. Using a command and control platform to unify site sub-systems, data relayed from the drone showing damage to the power line could create an on-screen alert at a central command centre. This alert could prompt a maintenance workflow which, on verification by the operator, would schedule appropriate action – for example, crew dispatch with relevant location coordinates. 

By thinking not just about drone-captured data as single-use information, but using this to drive operational processes, efficiencies can be achieved on a number of levels.

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