Why drones have a bright future in oil and gas

R2D2 and C3PO with caption ‘oil industry now hiring’

Why drones have a bright future in oil and gas

Drones (or autonomous equipment) should encounter a very receptive market in the oil and gas sector. Of all the digital technologies drones will deliver superior triple bottom line benefits. Moreover, it is in many oil and gas basins’ best interests to accelerate autonomy solutions. Here’s why.


Where autonomous kit wins, and where it doesn’t


What exactly is “autonomous” kit? Think of any piece of equipment that typically must have a human operator at the helm. Heavy haulers, delivery vehicles, cars, fork lifts, airplanes, helicopters, rail locomotives, submersibles, yellow goods, rigs, cranes, ships. The list is almost endless.


Digital advances are making it possible to dispense with the “in the cabin”operators or drivers of these mechanical contraptions, or at least, dispense with having one in the driver’s seat that is an integral part of the kit. These advances include complex mathematics, learning systems, sensors, data networks, cameras, robotics, and digital controllers that have fallen in price and expanded in capability to bring autonomous control to within grasp of most manufacturers.


Autonomous kit should win where work to be done is some potent combination of extra dangerous (and so elaborate protections are needed to safeguard the humans), high volume routine (what can be more routine than driving), or extra costly (perhaps by virtue of its location such as far northern oil mines, or by virtue of the scarcity of the skills needed as with pilots).


There’s a handful of public examples of trials underway for autonomous kit in public spaces (Google cars, for example, Uber’s taxis and Tesla’s driver assist), but there’s untold instances of real working and delivered autonomous equipment in use around the world. The oil industry has been slow to innovate directly in autonomous, and the adoption curve shows the usual slow pace, but it’s coming.


Autonomous kit will take longer to make a difference in those situations where risks are considered low (painting), the work is not that routine (nursing), and cost isn’t a driver (cleaning). I’m probably wrong.


What’s truly baffling for me is why oil and gas kit still has a human in the middle of their contraptions, despite the fact that humans are inherently unreliable and risky things. Surely one of the challenge facing the industry is the amount of training required to maintain and operate complex equipment in the face of a huge outflow of experienced employees (50% of oil and gas workers retire in the next 5 years). What’s even more puzzling is why engineers insist on baking a human role into the middle of their kit without consulting the true end user or operator. Great design means reducing the cognitive load to use equipment.



Why oil and gas


The oil and gas sector is actually very well suited to exploring and adopting autonomous kit.


  • The work can be dangerous – fumes and vapours from the product can asphyxiate or ignite
  • The work location is frequently remote and harsh, driving up the cost of housing human operators
  • Well trained human capital is now scarce because of the downsizing in the sector.
  • The sector is an avid consumer of the kinds of kit that autonomous favors – heavy lifters, haulers, movers.
  • The physical assets (plants, pipelines) are long life assets that require steady and often routine attention, making payback easier.
  • The work has lots of routine elements (heavy haulers trundling around mines, or engineers driving around to inspect facilities).
  • Environments where autonomous kit can be deployed are not shared with public use infrastructure (which takes way risks).


Some oil and gas basins have other intrinsic features that make them conducive to autonomous kit. These include a vigorous and technically capable supply chain (as in Canada and the US), widespread network coverage (North America), generally high cost labour (Canada, Australia), demanding safety regulations (Canada, Australia), large installed base of infrastructure (Canada, US, Australia), low technology transfer costs (Canada, US, Australia).


The Australian examples


The Land Down Under has an usually impressive track record in innovating in the area of autonomous equipment, mostly in mining, but there’s one good example from the gas sector.


Mining Haulers


The big iron ore mines in far off Western Australia are considered world leaders in developing the autonomous mine truck. These heavy haulers work in a well defined and controlled space (an open cut mine) where there’s no one about but miners. The cost of a heavy hauler driver is magnificent – the crews work around the clock from fly in-fly out camps, and travel from all over Australia. The mines pay for the travel, pay for the camps, pay extra for the social costs.


It’s not hard to grasp the significance of moving away from human drivers on heavy haulers:


Imagine having effectively a single driver who is learning constantly from the experience of driving all the haulers. That experience is captured and shared across all the haulers in real time, making the system constantly smarter and safer.


Imagine a central control room, where the operators are based, that isn’t on the mine site, but in a large city where operators want to live, improving turn over and absenteeism. Fewer drivers are needed and can supervise multiple trucks at the same time. Imagine the positive impact on recruiting, training and supervision.


Imagine a shift change with no reduction in productivity because the trucks don’t actually stop trucking. The driver simply stands up and her replacement takes over (yes, there’s lots of women in mine site hauling because they’re safer drivers than men).


Imagine a far more uniform usage profile of the mining trucks because an autonomous fleet would always operate precisely the same way yielding precisely uniform brake usage. Imagine the ability to model out exact routing which would translate into more precise field performance and more accurate business performance.


I am not surprised to see news stories about autonomous haulers getting a serious look in the oil sands mines.


Aerial drones


The new gas fields in Queensland are using drones (also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to fly inspection runs over the gas field assets (mostly gas wells). The wells are relatively low productivity, heavily regulated, remote and numerous. The old model was to assign a field operator to a handful of wells that would visited on some scheduled basis. The ratio of operator to well was low, because of the extensive drive times to get to the wells. Well operators might be on the same kind of shift as an off shore oil worker (2 weeks on 2 weeks off), drive enormous distances (creating a serious safety risk) and might visit wells that needed no attention at all (leading to wasted effort).


Initial drone trials led to the realization that aerial technology could do the job but only with industrial grade gear from serious players. The drones needed to fly at night so as not to disturb pastoral lands and the grazers. They needed to fly quite high (several hundred meters), well out of sight, and therefore needed a strong power plant and high end aeronautic controls.


The drones needed to carry a big payload – high resolution digital cameras, emissions sensors, LIDAR, moisture sensors, and so on. They take before and after photos to see how much vegetation has grown, if the well has been flooded, if it’s been damaged by frisky kangaroos. They needed to plug into work systems that created the next day’s work roster, including what wells need to be visited and why, what parts to load on the operator’s truck, even the order to visit the wells based on landowner access permits.


The payoff has been significant – a single drone can fly over and inspect more than a hundred wells each flight, where an operator might visit just 6 per day. Demanning the gas field delivers all the same HR benefits as autonomous haulers, with better safety outcomes because there’s less driving.


Of course, pilots aren’t cheap either, but there’s far fewer needed, and, because of their training in flight operations, they are inherently safety conscious.


UAVs could have a big impact on the huge and widespread oil and gas infrastructure that is typical in the Canadian and US oil and gas fields (such as the Western Sedimentary Basin and the newer unconventional fields of the Horn River and Montney formations).


Yes, UAVs could help make a step change in cost, productivity and safety performance in oil and gas.


Other autonomous examples


There are lots of other great examples that oil and gas could embrace:


  • The completely human free container port facilities that operate lights out, but with trucks and cranes loading and unloading containers around the clock.
  • The autonomous drill rig that cuts the human operator head count from dozens to a handful.
  • The robot trials for carrying out tank inspections and welding jobs during turn arounds.
  • The UAVs that can do flare stack inspections (a particularly hazardous and nasty job).


What next?


Autonomous kit is stepping onto Moores’ Law and will fall in cost while improving in capability every 18 months or so. If you’re a supply company, you need to be asking what autonomy will do to your current product and service offering. If you’re an operator, you need to be asking what autonomy will do to your cost and productivity profile. Either way, your organisation needs to be asking about what autonomy will do.


This article was co-written by Geoffrey Cann and Jay Billesberger.


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