Drones are transforming utility and energy operations, bringing benefits and improvements related to inspection, maintenance, site selection and more. A 100-km segment of gas pipeline in Mexico was inspected by a drone in an hour, work that would have taken weeks using traditional methods. The inspection found a fissure possibly caused by seismic activity, along with other potential problems. Additionally, thermal cameras and gas-leak detection systems can now be mounted to drones to assess areas with suspected gas leaks and used as a contactless measurement tool to keep oil and gas industry professionals out of harm’s way.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports the U.S. natural gas pipeline network has roughly 3 million miles of mainline and other pipelines linking natural gas production areas and storage facilities with customers. This presents tremendous opportunity for drone technology, which can pinpoint leaks in underground gas pipelines, driving safety, efficiency and greater access to data. Drones are also being used in vegetation management inspections of transmission and distribution pipeline rights-of-way, as well as in survey-grade maps for siting pipelines and other infrastructure.
For example, drone service provider SkySkopes uses a state-of-the-art LiDAR system to support oil-and-gas companies’ inspections for pipelines and other critical infrastructure. As one of the top drone services providers in the world, SkySkopes relies on Skyward, a Verizon company, for airspace intelligence, program management and industry insight. After Hurricane Harvey, Heath Consultants Inc. and Physical Sciences Inc. turned to drones to inspect underground gas lines for major leakage of areas that were inaccessible to vehicles and unsafe for workers due to down utility lines, flooding and hazardous debris.
Keep in mind that drones also come with a few inherent risks of their own, and these factors can include more than the potential for a crash. These also involve who’s piloting the drone, where it’s flown and how the data is collected. Incorporating a comprehensive drone management platform that allows an organization to control nearly every aspect of a drone program can be a very effective way to help a company assess key risk factors before takeoff.
In addition, consider incorporating the following questions into a corporate drone program’s risk assessment to help keep risks to a minimum for everyone:
1. Who is flying your drones, and are they qualified?
An enterprise may have a team of drone pilots scattered across the country in various business units, flying many types of aircraft, with each site managing its own pilots. But this management model may result in low accountability. If your company’s pilots are flying unsafely or without a remote pilot’s certificate, your company may be exposed to big fines — up to $32,666 for each incident, with the possibility of additional sanctions.
To be licensed, commercial drone pilots need to pass an exam from the FAA in accordance with Part 107, the federal rules for commercial drone operations. And pilots need to renew their knowledge currency every two years.
Certification is a requirement, but just because a pilot is certified to fly doesn’t mean they’re qualified. A pilot can get certified without having ever touched a drone. Go above and beyond by requiring hands-on flight training, proof of basic flight skills or a minimum required number of flight hours before flying missions for your company.
This is where a drone management platform can be of extreme value, allowing your team to track pilot certification and collect insights on every mission, even when crews are spread across the country.
2. Are your drone pilots flying only when and where they’re allowed to?
Drone pilots need training to be able to determine the proper airspace, times of day and weather to fly in. But training alone can’t help a pilot determine whether it’s safe to fly. They’ll also need tools to check the airspace and other conditions.
A drone airspace map is essential. Airspace conditions can change quickly and just because you could fly on a particular site one day doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to on the next. Look for a drone airspace map that will help you see airspace conditions before and during your flight, in addition to allowing you to submit requests to access controlled airspace. Some platforms also offer the capability to log flights for later review. This not only allows your crew to assess where the drone was flown but also confirm whether the flight complied with altitude restrictions, no-drone zones, local laws and restricted airspace.
3. Is your drone registered and your equipment in good
Every drone used for commercial purposes must be registered with the FAA. The drone pilot must be able to show the registration document (digitally or physically) to any law enforcement officer who requests to see it.
Another key factor in overseeing corporate drone programs is making sure the company’s drones are well maintained. Pilots require reliable, trustworthy tools for safe operations. Drones are aircraft, and aircraft require regular maintenance. Pay special attention to wear and battery health for improved reliability.
4. Have you considered drone data/cybersecurity risks?
Data security is important for many drone programs, especially when surveying secure sites or sensitive infrastructure. Think through what kind of information security requirements your company will need to secure your drone data. Compromised data is a risk you can’t afford, so developing a plan for safely capturing, processing and storing data is vital. Connecting with your IT team to establish what systems and procedures will be used is a great place to start.
Enterprises also need to plan for the large volume of data drones collect. How will it be processed and archived? How can you maintain accessible databases as they grow? What security protocols are needed?
5. How are you keeping up with new FAA rules in a fast-changing industry?
New technology tends to transform the ways things have always been done. Drones are no exception. As drones are pushing into new industries and use cases, regulations are continually evolving to keep up.
Be sure to keep up with the latest regulatory developments. This includes, but is not limited to, the FAA’s requirements for remote identification of drones. These requirements could affect the type of drones you invest in for years to come.
6. Do you have visibility into all aspects of your drone program?
You want your corporate drone program to be standardized and transparent. You need to be able to audit drone operations and records to spot possible liabilities. If there is a problem or accident, you need to be able to analyze the incident to prevent it from happening again.
These steps are so much easier when you have robust standard operating procedures (SOPs) and a single platform to manage your drone program. Fortunately, your team’s SOPs can be customized to your company’s needs as you launch and scale.
Running a drone program comes with some risks, but drones can help reduce corporate liability and improve workforce safety. Closely monitoring and standardizing your team’s operations can go a long way toward improving safety for all. Future drone advancements will continue to introduce new use cases for oil and gas industry professionals. Establish a thorough risk assessment for your drone program today and identify a drone management platform that can help your team streamline your operations and better define your level of risk before your drone operations start to scale.
Grace McAdory is a sales development representative at Skyward, a Verizon company.