May 2021, Vol. 248, No. 5


How Drones Assist with Pipeline Inspections

By Jeremiah Karpowicz, Technology Writer  

Drone operators have quantified the difference this technology can make to the bottom line in sectors that range from agriculture to construction. Yet, the benefits of drone technology are especially apparent in large-scale infrastructure projects with high regulatory burdens and high consequences if something goes wrong.

A drone approaches a right-of-way.
A drone approaches a right-of-way.

Examples of these projects include highway and pipeline inspections, but the energy industry has and will continue to recognize these benefits in more ways than one.  

The energy sector as a whole is seeing gains on account of the sheer scale and scope of their operations. Often their assets are in remote locations, and while the professionals managing these assets might never set eyes on the assets, they still have to make decisions about upkeep and repair.   

Any information that helps decision makers is advantageous, and new technologies like drones make previously inaccessible information accessible.  

The value of this information is based on its mobilization in a pragmatic approach to the inspection process for numerous types of pipeline monitoring and construction operations.   

Ultimately, that approach is focused on the risk that energy companies deal with in numerous capacities, and drone-collected data are used to assess and mitigate risk that impacts the bottom line and beyond.  

Hype vs. Reality   

Talk of the billions of dollars that drone technology represents has been going on for years. In some cases, that hype helped to compel adoption, but just as often it proved to be a double-edged sword.   

Robert Blank, of Denver, Colo.-based software company SolSpec, mentioned that he’s had several clients who battled unrealistic expectations on account of that hype, largely perpetuated by vendors making lofty claims about the future of this technology, further inflating expectations.   

For the most part, drones are no longer being positioned as a “silver-bullet” solution, but there’s still a great deal of hype associated with applications of the technology that are not commercially viable options today. It’s an issue that boils down to hype versus reality, which is why professionals like Blank are focused on delivering value to their customers using the technology available today.  

“A lot of what we’re doing is really just about augmenting the inspection process and automating workflows,” Blank said. “What I mean by that is the same number of people are doing what they’ve always done, but they’re able to get a lot more work done with dramatically higher consistency.”   

As an example, SolSpec analytics has developed a model for infrastructure corrosion control that shows how water would flow over that surface within hours.   

That analysis allows them to confirm whether that system is installed correctly, which makes a world of difference to the operators and contractors who ensure these systems are installed to spec to avoid spurious warranty claims. However, the technology also goes far beyond augmented inspections.  

“Instead of one person going out and saying they inspected a site or asset visually, that same person is able to quantify their assessment with turnkey data and analytics through automated workflows,” Blank said. “They’re able to turn what was a very inexact process into one that results in simplified, decision-ready information, backed by data, in a matter of weeks.”  

 Traditionally, pipeline inspections trend toward a very reactive process. If an operator can get ahead of an issue like soil erosion, they can avoid a hillside blowout that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to address.  

Unfortunately, many energy companies cannot afford to send crews out to monitor everything at all times, which inhibits a proactive approach to the problem.   

Drones have allowed energy companies to prioritize more effectively their resources and assess what needs to be done from a system-wide standpoint. This translates directly to cost-savings because their crews operate more efficiently.  

“Problem-solving in any context, not exclusive to drones, comes down to a relentless pursuit of understanding, tied to an appropriate action,” Blank told industry publication Commercial UAV News. “You’ve got to have an intimate understanding of why the problem is occurring to begin with, and whether the solution you propose truly solves that problem. Drones are tools capable of providing information that has completely changed how our clients understand and address their goal of reducing risk while maximizing efficiency.”  

In terms of what that means for companies in midstream and other energy sectors, these tools are beginning to replace the use of GoogleEarth, which is simply not granular or current enough to be useful. Users understand the value of a tool that provides more than just current, high-resolution imagery, but there are challenges associated with how this adoption process plays out as companies move from the exploration phase to the scaling phase of drone operations.  

Challenges of Scale  

One of the biggest challenges associated with the adoption of drone technology often comes down to a question of “build or outsource?” That is to say, should an organization build their own drone program or outsource drone services and data processing and analytics as necessary? While many organizations adopt a hybrid model, this challenge has proven to be secondary to a much bigger one that impacts companies both large and small.  

“The biggest challenge I’ve seen companies run into is associated with scale,” Blank continued. “What I mean by scale is that flying and analyzing five miles of pipeline is not the same as for 500 miles in a single week. There’s a substantial amount of computing resources required to chew through the data quickly for the latter case … it’s an addressable challenge and one that should be kept front-of-mind for any company navigating the drone landscape.”  

Given the dichotomy between the adoption of drone technology for a small team vs. adoption across an entire organization, the idea of a hybrid adoption model to work through the challenges of scale makes more sense than ever.   

By using a vendor while keeping certain elements under internal control, companies can get their feet wet while learning how they should use the technology in the short term and long term. Companies don’t need to jump into a full-blown drone program, and unrealistic expectations tie back into the reality of the technology versus the associated hype.  

“There’s a preconceived notion that you have to be able to stand up this huge drone program right out of the gate, but that’s not necessarily a requirement,” Blank said. “The thing is, there’s a lot that goes into standing up a drone program, and the nuances are not always apparent at first. So, it’s usually better to focus on the short-term wins while also realizing that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for continued long-term gains. We’ve got you covered however you want to approach it.”  

An example of what it means to not reinvent the wheel is associated with data processing and management. Generally speaking, oil and gas companies collect a tremendous amount of data to begin with, but do they need to build the equivalent of Google Drive from scratch to gain value from drones? The answer is no. They just need to know how to organize data in a user-friendly system and work with a third-party provider to do it more effectively.  

These kinds of results are not always immediate across a company, but the division using the technology usually recognizes an immediate value. Additional value typically comes from the refinement of that process or from adjacent departments adopting the technology, which immediately begins to unlock value that was not possible even five years ago.  

Bottom Line  

When it comes to quantifying the value of drone technology, the calculation is usually related to how drones are making a given process faster, cheaper or safer. But what does it mean to utilize the technology to avoid a problem that could be costly to repair and require a major commitment of resources and potential public relations nightmare or stock price drop?   

Given the variables in oil and gas that require the involvement of many different contractors and subcontractors, the reality for a pipeline owner/operator is rarely the one directly engaged in construction. Using drones to avoid disputes about the work being done in the field has translated to immediate cost-savings and lowered risk.  

“More often than not, operators hire contractors and subcontractors who hire their own subcontractors,” Blank said. “So the layers start stacking up really fast. If you have a couple hundred miles of construction, you might have several dozen crews working out there at one time. At the end of the day, the owner/operator is still going to assume liability for all of those moving pieces, and that’s a big responsibility.”  

If the operator and contractor both have a baseline of data to refer to, it is usually clear where the burden of liability or warranty falls at any point throughout the project lifecycle. Contractors committed to quality pipeline construction want defensible records and will provide reports to the owner/operator after a job is completed.  

Data do not lie, which is why drone data have been critical for midstream companies and contractors when it comes to litigation. For most energy companies, litigation is not about “if,” but rather “when.” With data from a drone that provide stakeholders with timeline and historical project snapshots, companies have been able to avoid finger-pointing games that are costly in terms of time and money.  

The value of using drone technology to avoid a contractor or landowner dispute is fairly well understood within the industry, but the more nuanced monetary value around what it means to capture better data or allow a more efficient workflow isn’t as easy to convey. That’s part of the reason the adoption of drone technology can vary widely, even when the value is positioned in terms that stakeholders can easily grasp.  

“When it comes to ways this technology impacts the end deliverable, we’ll often integrate aerial data as a supplement to data they are already capturing in the field or customizing reports based on preference,” Blank said. “That way they can see everything in the exact format that’s most helpful and familiar to them.”  

Drones have become essential elements in efforts to map, measure and mitigate issues for pipeline inspections of all types, but their ultimate value is about how they can do so in ways that are both measurable and immeasurable.   

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in industry publication UAV, Aug. 26, 2020.  

Author: Jeremiah Karpowicz is a technology writer and editor for various publications. 

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