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Drones - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

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An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is any aircraft that operates without a human pilot on board. UAVs and the equipment used to control them remotely are collectively referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). 

UAVs have a wide range of uses in variety of fields including recreational, commercial, or military purposes. It’s important to note though that in the United States, all aerial vehicles, manned or not, are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and all non-recreational, civil aircraft operations in the country must comply with FAA regulations.

Over the last decade, UAVs have been utilized more frequently in the O&G and petrochemical industries to help operators inspect and monitor their assets. Remote visual inspection from an aerial perspective using very high resolution, high zoom cameras is the number one application. Infrared cameras, gas detection sensors, multi and hyperspectral cameras are several additional capabilities of a drone. 

UAVs can be used to inspect nearly any structure, both indoors and outdoors, but they are most useful in the inspection of structures that are difficult to reach by traditional means. This can include tall structures, such as flare stacks, elevated pipe trays, and cooling towers, as well as confined spaces in which space is limited for traditional inspections. It can also include structures that are over water such as bridges or the undersides of oil rig platforms.

If implemented properly by knowledgeable and experienced operators, UAVs have the ability to effectively inspect difficult to access, elevated areas, while saving owner-users time and money, and reducing exposing personnel to unnecessary risk. Using the aforementioned cameras and sensors, elevated work can be minimized or even eliminated. Drones coupled with these advanced technologies can also help narrow the focus to specific areas so maintenance crews know exactly what they’re dealing with before they leave the ground. This is especially useful for turnaround planning. Areas that were once only accessible with scaffolding or rope access can now be accessed using drones at a fraction of the time and cost. Moreover, equipment can remain in service during drone operations; flare stacks are a good example of this. Other applications include inspecting insulation for damage and early detection of corrosion under insulation (CUI) on difficult to reach operating columns, reactors, and piping, just to name a few.

In 2019, the American Petroleum Institute published a 32-page guide for developing drone programs in the O&G industry, which have and will continue to grow significantly as new systems, applications, sensors and techniques are developed to make drone operations more tailored to the industry. 

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