Drones are a hot topic, they’re taking over the energy business.

Drone technology is among the recent innovations with the potential to transform how the oil and gas industry assesses and manages exposure to natural and man-made hazards. The equipment is affordable, quick and easy to use and can collect asset-wide, high-resolution imagery from flyovers of a site.

Combined with data processing and analytics, drones can be an efficient means of asset assessment and monitoring, from planning to construction to long-term operations.

The low cost of the technology has created a surge in the number of drone-operating companies available for hire. These firms promise high returns, but their clients are most often sent gigabytes—even terabytes—of data without much guidance on how to interpret it.

Customers are left to sift for relevant information, searching for evidence of recent slips, eroding slopes, encroachments and other potential hazards.

The drone challenge
The challenge for drone imagery is not collecting data points. It is generating insights that will save time and money on any large-scale land use project. That’s where aerial analytics is changing the game.

Drones can give midstream operators a lot of information, but analytics are key to making that information meaningful and actionable. Aerial analytics tools empower asset operators to make strategic, well-informed decisions that optimize budgets, time lines and outcomes.

In any large-scale land-use project, operators must manage their exposure to hazards that could negatively impact pipeline integrity, adjacent landowners, surface waters and other sensitive infrastructure and resources. By understanding these hazards early on, a firm can proactively prioritize and mitigate issues before they escalate in size, significance and resource demands.

Employing the highest-quality aerial analytics will change use of drones by the industry for the better in three fundamental ways:

1. Efficiency—First, it will increased efficiency by providing a seamless transition of information between planning, construction and operations for better allocation of resources.

Executives in oil and gas predict that, on average, 2.5 out of 10 companies in their industry will fail because of their inability to keep up with new trends in digital technology. Aerial analytics are defining a new era for the energy industry, and having drones alone isn’t enough.

High-quality analytics and models tell operators what they need and how to get it, and give rapid, clear and actionable results. These technological advances increase efficiency in capturing information, prioritizing resources and facilitating project transitions, and can save money at every stage of the asset life cycle.

The handoff between construction and operations can be challenging, and employing aerial analytics can facilitate that transition. Conducting flyovers from the start creates a consistent overview of the project at every step, and there is no lapse in continuity.

When the operations department takes over, there is often a limited budget to deal with problems that have been handed off, and they have little time to get up to speed. Aerial analytics models give operators a cohesive map of essential information so they can get to work on high-priority maintenance and use resources more effectively.

Upfront planning and transitional stages between divisions are major challenges when it comes to launching projects on time. Issues in those early stages are costly and can negatively impact the industry, communities and the environment. Getting the right models to make the right plans empowers maximal execution and performance in the field.

A single slip can cost a minimum of $500,000 to fix. Natural and man-made hazards, if unmanaged, can severely impact budgets and timelines. A comprehensive understanding of potential and existing hazards upfront can save millions of dollars down the road.

2. Safety—Second, increased safety for personnel, field and structural operations is available via data collection.

A right-of-way can be steep and rugged. The terrain can present any number of challenges to company crews. Excavators can slip. Winches may be needed to hoist equipment up and down hills. It’s possible you’ll encounter any number of challenging situations that can leave a project vulnerable to delays and failures or other issues.

There’s a lot going on, and safety is the highest priority. Drones and other aerial data acquisition technologies can quickly capture information in flyovers and reduce interference on the worksite.

Ultimately, drone imagery can reveal hazards that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Drones provide more consistent and data-driven insights than subjective observations by humans, leading to more accurate results that support confident decision making. Flyovers take a fraction of the time and are able to get to areas that are difficult to access.

Data can be gathered from flyovers at any stage in the construction and operations processes with little to no impact to the worksite. It can be disruptive and dangerous to have people assess the space, and progress, as often as operators would like, for example after every significant rain event.

The more we can do to keep people out of precarious situations, the safer it is for everyone. Aerial flyovers provide a highly detailed look at the entire area—and fast—without disruption to work and additional risk to employees on site. The data can be processed almost immediately so teams can begin consulting the models, such as landslide condition and landslide potential, providing informed actions right away.

3. Positive social equity and public perception—Third, in-depth planning and high-quality, long-term restoration are crucial for the energy industry at a time when failures can evoke negative public and political backlash. Incidents can lead to litigation, diminish community support and create impediments to future work.

Modeling existing and potential hazards empowers teams to stop costly incidents before they happen and plan and execute projects with pipeline integrity, community safety and environmental resources in mind. Using the most advanced aerial analytics technology ensures that assets are planned, built, and managed to optimize efficiencies, minimize risk and build trusting relationships with communities.

With so much to gain from engaging aerial analytics on large-scale projects, how can midstream operations find the best support? Accurate, actionable information provided quickly is in high demand, and unfortunately many drone companies cannot offer it.

According to SolSpec LLC Co-founder Toby Kraft, drone operators must be “driven to make data actionable, to answer questions that solve real-life industry problems effectively and efficiently.”

One tool
Kraft added SolSpec has emphasized designing a platform that serves for widespread use of aerial imagery. And while drones and other aerial data acquisition tools are an important part of the process, the Golden, Colo.-based firm emphasizes the drones are but one tool on a belt, he added.

Data analytics can be used from the outset of oil and gas infrastructure projects to inform route and site planning, permitting, compliance attainment, and contract management. In the asset operations and maintenance phase, their models help operators identify, understand, and prioritize the mitigation of existing and potential hazards to asset integrity, the environment, and adjacent landowners.

Data processing by drone operators should be fast, he said, noting SolSpec has reduced the time it takes to process and deliver aerial data into the hands of clients from four months to 72 hours.

Overspending and delays caused by regulatory and permitting issues, dealing with problems not identified in the planning period, and other challenges will translate into an estimated $5 trillion for the oil and gas industry by 2035. The advancement of analytical tools will determine the destiny of the industry as better models support improved performance and efficiency.

For large construction and monitoring efforts, the missing piece of the puzzle is making aerial data translate quickly into actionable information. The drones may be here to stay, but without advanced aerial analytics, the data they provide won’t translate to optimized time, budget and resources.

Katherine Kraft is a public policy and government affairs analyst and Katrina Engelsted is a business analyst for SolSpec LLC.