ConocoPhillips flies high

Using drones to save time and money, improve safety

ConocoPhillips business units around the globe use a variety of drones to achieve their goals, including fixed-wing, quadcopters and caged quadcopters such as these.

This is the first in a series of articles about how ConocoPhillips business units around the globe are using drones to safeguard personnel, minimize environmental impact and cut costs.


BY JAN HESTER

In September 2013, ConocoPhillips made history when its Alaska business unit partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to complete the first commercial flight by an unmanned aerial system (UAS) in the U.S. The company launched a 40-pound Boeing Insitu ScanEagle surveillance drone from a research ship in the Arctic Chukchi Sea, about 120 miles from the Alaskan coast. The 36-minute flight was intended to test the drone’s sensors and navigation system, with the goal of streamlining the approval process for future flights in U.S. airspace.

Geoscience Fellow Khalid Soofi shares his thoughts with Jan Hester on how drones are being used in  ConocoPhillips’ operations around the world. (7:57)

The FAA hailed the move as “a milestone that will lead to the first approved commercial UAS operations later this summer.”

Dennis Parrish, director, Customer & Operations Support, Aviation Flight Operations, conceived and managed the project, based on his years of experience on FAA rule-making committees. “It had to be a full commercial operation, certified and operating within FAA guidelines. This was regular business and not experimental.”

Geoscience Fellow Khalid Soofi points out the importance of this event. “This was the first time the FAA made an exception to their policies and allowed a drone to fly out of line-of-sight of the operator.”

DRONES 101
  • Drones are radio-controlled aircraft devices capable of flying and carrying materials above the ground.
  • The formal name for a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
  • Drones can be controlled by either a human operator or a computer.
  • Drones are components of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which also include the controller and the communications system that connects the two.

The drone used in the flight now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located near Washington Dulles Airport.

Subsequent flights associated with the program were conducted off the coast of Alaska in 2014 and 2015, involving the U.S. Coast Guard in addition to ConocoPhillips, Boeing/Insitu and the FAA. In 2014, ConocoPhillips Alaska successfully transferred over-the-horizon control of a drone from a ship to a land-based system, an important achievement for using UASs to monitor potential emergency situations.

Since then, UASs have played an increasingly important and varied role in the oil and gas industry, and ConocoPhillips teams around the globe are finding innovative ways to incorporate them into their work. From conducting asset integrity inspections in hard-to-access places to creating applications for effective methane emissions monitoring, drones have the potential to save money by reducing the time required to complete projects, enhance safety by eliminating the need for people to perform tasks at height, and contribute to sustainable development by reducing the environmental impact of company operations.

Despite the many advantages to using drones, companies exploring new uses for these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) confront limitations associated with government regulations, payload limits and the size and quality of the accompanying technology.

Did you know?
Drones have historically been used for aerial photography. In 1916, during the five-months-long World War I Battle of the Somme, the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) took more than 19,000 aerial photographs using a UAS.

The FAA’s line-of-sight requirement is the number one issue.

“Regulation in the U.S. depends on how clear the skies are, the size of the drone, and even your eyesight,” said Soofi. “If you can’t see it, you can’t fly it.”

Another challenge is battery power.

“The best of the small drones has a battery life of 30 to 40 minutes,” Soofi said. “To extend that window, you have to use bigger drones and lose the agility of a smaller one.”

ConocoPhillips launches emissions steering committee
One of the company’s strategic goals is to reduce its carbon footprint. To address that goal and to respond to enterprise risk/enterprise reward, the Technology group launched the Emissions Program Steering Committee. The committee includes members from Global HSE; Sustainable Development; Technology; Investment Appraisal & Authorization; Global Production; and Exploration, Subsurface & Other International, as well as the Alaska, Canada and Lower 48 business units. The group’s objectives are to improve emissions detection and emissions reduction. To address the challenges of detecting pneumatic and fugitive emissions, the group will participate in a technology pilot test in the Delaware Basin in West Texas in the fall.

The FAA dictates a total weight, including all sensors, of not more than 55 pounds, but commercial UAS operators, in coordination with the FAA, hope to loosen those restrictions in the near future.

“Now that it has been established that drones are an excellent tool for visual inspections, the next step will be determining if they can be equally useful for emissions inspections,” Soofi said. “To determine that, ConocoPhillips corporate teams will have to play a role in validating technology, testing it and determining whether it will work.”

Following are some of the ways ConocoPhillips business units are using drones around the globe. A series of follow-up articles will provide greater detail on these innovative projects:

  • To safeguard personnel safety, protect company assets and ensure regulatory compliance, the ConocoPhillips Corporate Aviation team will release guidelines for drone use throughout the company.
  • On Alaska’s North Slope, members of the emergency response and crisis management team use UASs — in conjunction with manned aircraft — to monitor conditions on the ground and stream live video directly to the emergency operations center and other computers.
  • In the company’s Lower 48 business unit, a pilot project will explore how drones can be used to monitor methane emissions. The company is working with partners specializing in UAS technology as well as greenhouse gas emissions detection technology.
  • At Australia Pacific LNG, drones are actively used for out-of-line-of-sight inspections, emissions and leakage monitoring, and asset integrity.
  • In the U.K., drones are currently used to carry out planned inspections of offshore installations and structures, including the monitoring of a cracked flare pipe on one of the platforms to ensure the condition remains safe and stable until the flare tip is changed out as part of the planned maintenance program.
  • The Polar Tankers group recently used UASs to perform regulatory inspections of the internal structure of its crude oil cargo and ballast tanks, reducing the need for staging as well as the safety risks associated with entering confined spaces and working at height.

To learn more about how the company uses UASs around the world, visit this page regularly.