October 2019, Vol. 246, No. 10

Drones & Pipelines

Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight Drone Inspects Trans-Alaska Pipeline

By Sam Winstel, American Petroleum Institute, Washington, D.C.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently made history by completing the first true beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight under the small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rule. 

Photo: Sean Tevebaugh/University of Alaska Fairbanks
Photo: Sean Tevebaugh/University of Alaska Fairbanks

The team flew a long-range hybrid-electric unmanned aircraft nearly 4 miles along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS Integration Pilot Program – and in partnership with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

This first deployment of an unmanned aircraft with detect-and-avoid technology could enhance the industry’s ability to monitor pipelines and other energy infrastructure over large areas in Alaska and across the country.

Because existing FAA regulations restrict UAS flights in national airspace at or below 400 feet and within the operator’s visual line of sight, the Alaska mission marked a significant step toward standardizing the approval of safe commercial UAS use on a bigger scale. 

“The Integration Pilot Program is helping us advance the safe, secure and reliable integration of drones into the national airspace.” said FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell. “This important milestone in Alaska gets us closer to that goal.”

New technologies are already optimizing pipeline performance and automating industry operations, particularly in areas where remote conditions and harsh terrain present challenges for worker safety. Intelligent UAS and remote diagnostics are positioned to further modernize infrastructure integrity management and accelerate rapid response, and this latest test flight demonstrates the equipment’s utility in improving worker safety in routine inspections. 

“The ability to use UAVs for surveillance in remote areas of the pipeline increases the tools at our disposal to operate TAPS more reliably and safely and better protect Alaska’s environment,” Tom Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. “This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country.” 

The TAPS flight is the latest development in the industry’s advanced digital operations. Last year, Shell received FAA approval to use UAS for aerial monitoring in Texas’ Permian Basin, where robotization has the potential to improve environmental performance and alleviate road congestion.

UAS uptake in the energy industry is part of a larger trend in technological innovation, as producers and distributors employ artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous robots to maximize efficiencies along the entire energy industry supply chain.

With optical gas imaging, today’s UAS can more quickly identify leaks to minimize emissions, and by using light detection and ranging technology, the devices can model terrain to preempt issues related to ground shifts.

BVLOS UAS deployed along Alaskan pipelines also have promising applications outside the industry. One project partner, the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI), ultimately envisions 24/7 UAS operations across Alaska, which could mean outfitting UAS for other tasks – like delivering medical supplies to remote locations.

“These first flights demonstrated that new technology can provide a route toward safe beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation of unmanned aircraft in Alaska,” said Cathy Cahill, director ACUASI. “We want to ensure the safety of manned aviation while opening new opportunities for unmanned aircraft cargo deliveries to villages, monitoring of infrastructure, mammal surveys and a host of other missions of use to Alaskans.” P&GJ

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