Re-thinking Oil Operations

May 1, 2018 | Arctic, Environmental, Oil & Gas

Vanessa Orr

Alaska Aerial Media’s drone capturing live ordinance detonation at the 2016 Arctic Thunder Airshow.

Drones and crowdsourcing improve industry procedures and policies

As technology advances, it often creates opportunities for companies to consider doing things differently. This generally holds true for the oil industry, where technology is used to provide a more safe work environment, improve cost-efficiencies, and even create a collaborative “cloud” space where employees can crowdsource new ideas.

Unmanned Aerial Systems Increase Safety, Efficiency

Three years ago, Alaska Aerial Media became the first Alaska-based company to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for commercial purposes. And while the original plan was to use the drones for cinematography, co-owner Beau Bivins and his partners quickly realized that this technology had many other applications.

“Back in 2014, there were about ten reality shows shooting in Alaska, so we were using drones mainly for production-related work,” says Bivins. “About two-and-a-half years ago, we began to focus our attention on other uses for the systems, including infrastructure inspection and surveying services. Now we work with a number of oil and gas companies, providing everything from surveying to inspection services and consulting services; it all depends on what they need.”

One of the most important uses for the company’s drones is live flare inspections, which traditionally require an oil company to shut down production while an employee performs a visual inspection and fixes whatever problems might be found. In addition to losing production time, this old-school method put employees in harm’s way.

“The biggest benefit of using an unmanned aerial system is that it decreases risk,” explains Bivins. “By using a drone, you’re not exposing a human to the dangers of active high-pressure facilities.

“The second biggest benefit is the cost perspective; to inspect a flare field, you have to shut down the production facility, which can take a day or two. Inspecting the flares takes another couple of days, and then it takes time to ramp back up to full production,” he adds. “If a facility produces tens of thousands of barrels a day at $60 a barrel, it could cost the company millions to shut down a facility for that long. Because drones can be used while the facility is up and running, it continues to operate at the same capacity and to meet regular production rates.”

When a company is looking at annual or biannual inspections, those costs can quickly add up. Drones also save on the amount of time an employee must spend in the field by performing a pre-inspection.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that we are replacing the inspection process that companies already have in place,” says Bivins. “What we do is really more of a ‘pre-inspection’ inspection. For example, in many cases, the company knows that they have a problem, but they don’t know where it is. It’s very inefficient to have to search for it. We are able to pinpoint problems so that when employees go out to do the full inspection, they know exactly where to go and what tools will be needed.”

Numerous oil and gas companies are using drone technology, including Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which worked with another UAS company at their pump station in Deadhorse.

“Over the course of the last year, we’ve had the opportunity to leverage drone technology, which we’ve used two times for flare inspections at Pump 1,” says Chief Information Officer Bill Rosetti. “Putting someone up on top of the facility to inspect the flares to make sure that they are working correctly can be dangerous, and our employees’ safety is paramount.

“By using the drone remotely to inspect the flare tip, we can see how it’s functioning, which helps us when we do have to shut down the flare for closer inspection,” he adds. “We also use the information obtained from the drone to make decisions about future maintenance.”

According to Bivins, if a company knows where a small crack is, for example, it can continue to inspect the crack using a drone and use that information for predictive analysis. “If we know that it grew by a certain percent over time, then we know how often it needs to be inspected,” he explains. “This type of technology helps companies better understand the conditions of their assets; it helps them connect those dots.”

While some oil and gas companies choose to contract out UAS services, others may want to keep these services in-house. To this end, Alaska Aerial Media provides a number of options for companies considering drone technology.

“When we first meet with the client, we talk to them about what they want to achieve out of the inspection,” says Bivins. “Once we’ve defined the problem, the scope of the project and the schedule, we can customize our services.”

In some cases, Alaska Aerial just collects the imagery and turns the data over to the client for its own in-house analysis. They can also provide a pre-analysis, looking for loose bolts, cracks, or corrosion. They then upload their information and annotations to cloud-based software that is shared with the client.

“With advancements in drones, cameras, and sensors, and the decrease in cost, some companies are looking at establishing internal programs to assess their own infrastructure,” says Bivins. “We work in a consulting role to help with planning and training.”

Depending on the job, Alaska Aerial has a number of drones that they use in the field. “We have specialized drones for different types of acquisitions,” says Bivins. “We use the same drone platform, but can switch out sensors to include regular photography, thermal imaging, or even a zoom camera.

“Successful live flare inspections require complementary sensors. Visible damage to pilot lights can be viewed from traditional cameras; however, thermal sensors allow us to further detail the status of the flare.”

The company also has drones that utilize LiDAR, the same technology used on planes. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a land surveying method that works on the principle of radar, but uses light from a laser to create 3D representations of a target.

As for what this new technology can’t do? “It can’t swing a hammer or turn a wrench yet,” laughs Bivins. “But for pre-inspections, it’s really efficient.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Even though this technology is just getting off the ground in Alaska, drone companies are already looking forward to advancements that are being made every day.

“It is a full-time job keeping up on the technology; we’re constantly monitoring and testing what’s out there, and we’re involved in beta programs trying out new software,” says Bivins. “As new products hit the market, we look at it to see if it will benefit our clients or enable us to deliver a better product.”

According to Bivins, one of the issues most often discussed in the industry is the idea of artificial intelligence or machine learning being incorporated into drone software.

“The UAS captures a drastic amount of new data every time it flies; this data needs to be utilized very efficiently so that it doesn’t create bottlenecks in the workflow,” he explains. “We’re looking for actionable insight, which is why companies are exploring artificial intelligence and machine learning—can you teach software or a computer to identify what an anomaly looks like, so that after a while it will be able to identify anomalies by itself?

“Having the software flag new anomalies instead of having a person go through the data is a hot topic in the industry,” he adds. “While some companies say that they can offer this, in our experience working with AI focused companies, we’re not there yet. You have to train the software what to look for, and this is a long process and requires a huge amount of data.

“I don’t think it’s far off; in a year, year-and-a-half, I believe we’ll see some really useful applications, but until we reach the amount of data necessary to train the software, I think some of these companies are selling what they don’t really have.”

Collaboration Within Companies

Even as space-age technology makes it easier to monitor facilities, companies are also looking at more down-to-earth ways to reach one of their most important assets—their employees.

At Alyeska, for example, the company has begun using crowdsourcing as a way to encourage innovation and collaboration among its workforce.

“Late last year, as we continued to look at how to improve field operations and back-office operations, we came up with the concept of a cloud-based crowdsourcing tool that would give us a way to gather and initially vet ideas from our employees and our contractors,” explains Rosetti. “Who better to provide great ideas on how to make things work better than the folks closest to the work?”

According to Rosetti, employees or contractors pose a “campaign,” which is basically a question, through the cloud-based website. Other employees suggest ideas or answers, and the conversation continues as more people provide input. “Ideas are refined and improved through this process,” says Rosetti, adding that the final idea is then put to employees for an up vote or a down vote. Ideas that receive enough up votes are passed on to Alyeska administration, which develops teams to evaluate each idea and, if successful, move it toward implementation.

“What’s great about this crowdsourcing platform is that it gets ideas out to where a lot of people will see them,” says Rosetti. “Though the tool is relatively new, it has already led to some process improvements that make life better for all of us.”

While some of the larger or more technical ideas need to be vetted through the engineering process, which requires more time, other ideas have received a fast turnaround and have already been implemented.

“One simple example of this is our previous travel policy, which did not allow employees to use services like Uber or Lyft,” says Rosetti. “Once those technologies came to Alaska, someone suggested that the policy should be amended, and after it received enough up votes it was evaluated and the policy was changed. It created the opportunity for us to harness a technology that other people have brought to market.”

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