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UAS in the Gulf of Mexico

By Staff Writer | August 1, 2015


By Pat Gray

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are operating now offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m sure this is not a surprise to many people who make their living dealing with the extraction of oil and gas from under the sea. Innovation is a constant in this industry. That is reflected in the thousands of oil field patents issued and their millionaire owners.

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At present, there are two primary UAS operators eyeing the many offshore structures that may be candidates for close-up, safety-related observation using multi-spectral technology: Oceaneering International and VDOS Global.

A global company that provides engineered services focused on deepwater applications such as drilling, well completions, subsea hardware, manned diving and remotely controlled subsea vehicles, Oceaneering International has entered the UAS market.

Leading the new venture is Bryan Foster, the program lead for what Oceaneering refers to as remote aerial vehicles. He has extensive experience in the field of remote control. Bryan also is a rated pilot who understands the significant requirements of airspace control and brings thousands of hours of remote vehicle experience to the Oceaneering venture.

Safety inspections are the anchor of the UAS offshore market. VDOS Global’s Section 333 exemption from the FAA said it is authorized to use an Aeryon SkyRanger quadcopter to perform flare-stack inspections on 14 Shell Oil production platforms in the Gulf. Oceaneering has an agreement with an unnamed major oil company to use a UAS for outside surface inspections on at least one offshore rig, initially for testing and data collection.

The first target of Oceaneering’s inspections also will be flare stacks, which burn off dangerous amounts of natural gas that are encountered often when drilling for oil.

Tips that ignite the gas in a flare stack to offer a degree of controlled burn eventually become worn and need replacement. Located on a long extension boom to keep the fire (or flare) away from the platform, these tips are difficult to inspect and service.

A normal inspection requires having an oil worker climb the boom to inspect the tip, which is a risky venture.

Equipped with high-definition cameras, a UAS can hover over the tip and send a picture to the operating team on the rig. This could save the oil company time and money by avoiding having to arbitrarily replace the tip on a scheduled basis.

Foster is hoping that rig operators will find additional uses for UAS, such as inspections of leg and bridge beams that may be corroded and in need of repair. His particular UAS (the Wookong DJI S800 and Aeronavics X4 Titanium, according to Oceaneering’s FAA exemption) are capable of flying under the platform without losing GPS signals.

VDOS Global, with offices in Corvallis, Ore., is headed by Brian Whiteside. A former U.S. Navy F-18 pilot, his familiarity with airspace regulation is embedded in his operations.

Looking ahead, Whiteside said there may be a number of uses for UAS beyond flare-stack inspections and under-platform inspections, including oil leak detection, oil spill prevention, environmental compliance monitoring, under-platform inspections, post-storm surveys, hazardous-area inspections and emergency inspections.

VDOS Global’s UAS, the SkyRanger, is a 5.3-pound, battery-powered rotorcraft with 1-pound payload capable of remaining airborne for about 30 minutes or more. Its payload consists of high-definition video and thermal imaging devices.

That equipment is operated via computer tablet, with the resulting data analyzed and saved. Whiteside said he is hoping to collect enough data to convince all offshore oil companies of the viability of using UAS as a contributor to offshore platform safety.

Both companies have attended meetings of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference, giving presentations to that group on how they intend to use UAS in a manner that will not conflict with helicopter operations.

At this time, helicopter operators see no need to protest the use of UAS in normal helicopter airspace.

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