Maersk Oil is using aerial drones as an integral part of its inspection programme in the North Sea. The results are promising; the high-flying helpers are cheaper, more efficient and they increase safety offshore.
Quirky ideas stemming from the boom in civilian use of drones have dominated headlines concerning their future potential, but as the technology has matured, a swarm of unmanned aircraft is now buzzing into the oil and gas inspection industry.
“Drones are one of this decade’s mega trends, and with the results we have achieved so far in our operations in Denmark and the UK, I am convinced that the use of drones will be an integrated part of the oil and gas industry,” says Lead Production Engineer in Corporate Technology and Innovations, Martin Kaster Agerbæk.
Better use of resources
Earlier this year the Danish Business Unit carried out a drone inspection of a flare tip at Tyra East. Previously, inspections of flare tips have been undertaken from a full-scale helicopter with a photographer on-board.
“Usually we need to stay a longer distance away with deterioration of image quality as a result. The drone allows us to get close to the flare tip even with the flare up. Thereby we get better information to determine our structural and process integrity,” says Maintenance Lead
in DBU, Troels Føgh Sørensen.
Improved data and thereby the quality of assessment is only one of many benefits. Using drones instead of helicopters is also cost effective and it’s a way of shifting resources, Troels explains:
“To use a Drone for inspection is less than half the price of an inspection by helicopter, and at the same time we are able to free up bed spaces during inspection, and instead use them for other activities on the installation.”
Restrictions such as high winds do still apply and safety is paramount when using drones around upstream assets.
Drones have replaced manned helicopter flights with photographers for some flare tip inspections, saving money and reducing risk.
Drone technology is evoloving fast and their compact size and increasing payload capability makes more uses in the future highly likely.
A drone is an extra pair of eyes unconstrained by gravity and the normal limits of difficult-to-reach areas in complex plants. Drones can play a big role in minimising the time people spend in high risk areas. Peter Burridge who has headed the drone project in UK explains;
“When we did an inspection of a four story high tank on Gryphon, we were the first in the world to use drones for inspecting inside a cargo tank offshore. Usually we would do this using a rope access team of four people, and it would take more than a day to do what we can do in minutes with a drone.” The only human involvement when a drone is used is the pilot and inspector standing on the deck.
“We have done several technical adjustments and tests of the drone, and these allowed us to fly the drone within the tank to take the video and pictures we needed. The drone even allows the inspector to see the images during flight and within minutes they can be sent to onshore colleagues for review,” says Burridge.
Potential of offshore delivery
The experience from the North Sea is being shared across the Maersk Group to leverage the technical developments and ensure the potential benefit is spread as widely as possible.
“Our learnings from the tank inspection and the technical development of the drone that had to be carried out to make it fit for purpose may also benefit our colleagues in Maersk Tankers, who are working on testing drones for inspecting and delivering parcels to their product tankers,” says Burridge.
When asked if our offshore colleagues can look forward to getting pizza deliveries by drones in the North Sea, Martin Kaster Agerbæk laughs and says;
“You never know. Drone technology evolves very fast. I do see a lot of potential for future use, such as non-destructive testing and surveying onshore”.
Top/side views of installation