Drones have boomed in 2020 thanks to their innovative use for delivery services in a time where pandemic restrictions have limited the movement of people across the globe. However, the flying machines that were mostly used for leisure purposes until recently could serve as very important tools for greater surveillance and maintenance in the energy sector. With over a million new drones being purchased over the last four years, what was once a niche tech trend is becoming the norm for monitoring and surveillance.  Sales of high-precision commercial-grade drones have increased by 500 percent over the last four years. While many of these drones are catching useful aerial footage for maps, media, and television use, some are now being used by energy companies to monitor their infrastructure. With this increased uptake, the drone technologies market, currently valued at $14 billion, is expected to triple by 2024, growing by 13.8% CAGR between now and 2025. 

At present, Asia is the biggest drone market, primarily China and Japan. Having legalized the use of drones, the Indian drone market is also expected to rise sharply over the next five years, particularly for use in the energy market. In 2020, IndianOil has been given permission by the government to commence aerial surveillance of the Delhi-Panipat pipeline. The pilot program, which expects a reduction in oil theft, will trial drone technology for potential use across oil, gas, and water pipelines in India.

Oil pipelines and other vital infrastructure are often located in hard-to-reach areas where it’s difficult to spot any malfunctions before they get to a critical stage. Drones offer an aerial view of this infrastructure, allowing engineers to see any potential issues and fix them ahead of time. As well as reaching difficult areas, drones also provide a birds-eye perspective with excellent clarity, offering a more detailed view of infrastructure and the landscape. 

Related: Oil Prices Leap Higher On Fresh Vaccine Hopes According to research carried out by scientists at the University of Aberdeen, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones) offer great potential for the future of monitoring and evaluation in the energy sector. 

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In the article, Dr. David Green states, “The main risk posed by an oil or gas pipeline is the existence of a spill or a leakage that threatens to cause an environmental disaster, not to mention the risk of an explosion.”

“A thorough system for pipeline monitoring requires the use of specific sensors that can detect rust or corrosion – or if the pipeline is beneath the ground, the existence of methane or changes in the surrounding vegetation that indicate a failure.

“This kind of technology is evolving at a rapid pace, to the point where these sophisticated sensors are now small enough to mount on unmanned aerial vehicles.”

This suggests that drones could be an integral part of pipeline maintenance, as well as monitoring. In addition, covering large areas in a systematic way, in hard-to-reach areas, using drone technology would be much more cost-effective. Teaming new drone technology with innovative AI and digitalization processes could help further modernize the energy sector. 

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Drones could help oil companies save significantly by avoiding unnecessary pipeline checks for false problems. For example, with the current technology, rain, and animals walking on the pipeline can be flagged as an issue that needs to be checked. However, by using UAVs, unnecessary engineer callouts to difficult locations can be prevented.

As well as monitoring oil pipelines, drones are being used in other areas in the energy sector. This includes surveillance of power transmission and distribution infrastructure, particularly wind turbines and power plants. 

With the drone technology market continuing to grow at a steady rate, and greater innovation within the sector for industrial use, the outlook for drones in energy looks bright. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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