The energy sector has been investigating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, popularly known as drones, for nearly a decade. British Petroleum started its first tests in 2006 and recently became one of the first in the industry to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones. Largely because the FAA has mandated numerous limits on drone activity, including requirements for drone pilots to maintain sight of all flights, the pace of adoption remains slow, but industry specialists have already begun exploring the many ways that drones can be useful in and around oil rigs across the globe.
For most companies, drones have proven most useful as inspection tools, whether one wants to check flare stack integrity or use infrared cameras to find early signs of oil pipeline leaks. Rig operators have begun deploying drones to check for everything from ground movement to wildlife activity, and innovative mapping technologies are allowing for fine-grain models of oil-rich environments. Drones have even been used within the rigs themselves, thanks to special enclosures that protect the vehicle as it moves through oil tankers. While the FAA has only approved a portion of the applications for drone usage in the United States, industry specialists believe that drones represent an important component of the energy sector’s future.