THE WOODLANDS—A wartime tool of recent administrations is getting oil and gas workers into places they couldn’t go before for inspections, patrolling pipelines, detecting leaks, assessing spill damage and security.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—commonly known as drones—and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) equipped with cameras and sensors such as gas detectors, infrared or laser pulses are proving to be beneficial in the energy sector.

“It’s pretty useful if you are operating in the Middle East to know what is going on before you go out into the field,” Curt Smith, a technology director for BP, said while speaking about the array of applications for drones. Others include locating spills to determine where to send response vessels, mapping or measuring vertical movement. “Is the ground going up or down for injection programs? Are pipeline supports moving?”

Then, there are uses such as 3-D and 4-D modeling and even wildlife monitoring, which could come in handy in Alaska where Smith said a polar bear had shut down a gravel pit. “Animals rule in the oil field,” Smith said this week during the SPE Digital Energy Conference.

Drones are among the digital innovation tools that have increasingly gained attention in the oil patch as federal regulators devise rules governing their commercial use.

In February, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed regulations that permit routine use of UAS under 55 pounds for non-recreational operations. Flights would be restricted to daylight hours and operations that are in line of sight, meaning the operator must maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. Flights would not be allowed to surpass an altitude of 500 feet and travel no faster than 100 mph.

The proposal also requires operators avoid airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas and to assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and locations of people to lessen risks if the operator loses control of the aircraft, according to the FAA’s website.

Work on the regulations comes as the FAA opens the door to more companies seeking permission to use drones. More than 340 requests have been made. As of March 2, the FAA had granted 42 exemptions, including for uses such as filming, photography, agricultural surveys, insurance inspections and flare stack inspections. Energy companies granted exemptions in 2015 include Total Safety and VDOS Global, flare stack inspections, and Chevron UAS for aerial imaging for safety and monitoring controlled access of oil and gas facilities, according to the FAA.

While the use of drones and UAS may be relatively new on the radar for some companies, BP has been testing drones since 2006 when it began looking for ways to monitor pipelines 24-7, Smith explained.

BP, working with drone manufacturer AeroVironment, became the first company to secure FAA permission to fly a commercial drone over U.S. land in 2014. Controlled by radio, the 1.18-m (6-foot) long , fixed-wing Puma AE UAV was tasked with conducting aerial surveys over BP’s Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska’s North Slope.

Nowadays, the company is working with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, using drones for pipeline leak detection. Smith noted how infrared can be used to find hot spots and how drones can enhance operations in arctic conditions, including ice break-ups and ice floes, making it possible to shoot videos and photos more often to find problems.

He warned attendees, however, to put pipeline control applications on their “don’t do that list.” This, he said, is something everybody wants to do but it won’t happen quickly. “That requires out of line of sight control, and the systems aren’t ready for that yet,” because there are no systems available that detect and react to certain situations or respond to air traffic control commands. “You need to have line of sight control.”

As explained by BP, UAVs are controlled via mobile ground stations—one person flies the drone and another person operates the onboard cameras. The UAVs are equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) equipment that uses remote sensors and laser pulses to collect 3-D images. A subject expert typically accompanies the two to analyze pictures and data in real-time.

Drones are being used not only in the U.S., but elsewhere.

In Singapore, drones are being used for internal inspections of oil and gas tankers. Every two years, the tanks have to be emptied, cleaned and inspected, which requires someone to go inside the 3-story-high tanks. With a video, Smith showed how a drone, enclosed in a ball to prevent damaging the drone’s rotor blades, navigated through the tank going around pipes and tubes. Similar work is being done on vessels.

Geologic modeling is another area in which BP utilizes drones.

A drone was used to capture photos of river-deposited Cretaceous sandstones in Book Cliffs, Utah. The photos were used for a photogrammetry project in which a 3-D model of the area was created, a task that would have been impossible without use of an aircraft given a 1,000-foot drop.

“This model will be used to train geoscientists and reservoir engineers. It’s an analogy for the rocks in Alaska,” Smith said.

Offshore the U.K., BP has used a drone for flare stack inspections on a vessel. “The old way to do it was to shut everything down, put up scaffolding, have people climb around and see what is going on,” Smith explained. By using a small drone, in this instance carrying a 24-megapixel camera for photos, the company is able to look for problems while the flare stack is still operating to determine what needs to be fixed before shutting down operations.

“Just flying around is interesting, but you have to know what you are looking at,” Smith said.

He later illustrated how the drones are being used for digital civil engineering, specifically road conditions in Alaska. “If a road is in bad shape, then you have problems,” he said, noting gravel is placed on roads to cover the permafrost during operations.

Considering a drill rig rental can cost about $10,000 an hour, a slow or stalled rig can increase operational costs and delay production.

“If you look at the cost per barrel you need to look at the operational costs, too,” he said. “There is a lot of money you can save on the operational side. It’s not as sexy; but it’s big money and it’s kind of easy money.”

Smith compared operating a UAV to operating a plane from the ground. “But adoption and scale takes time,” he said.

Contact the author, Velda Addison, at