| June 7
June 7 No pilot was required when the Aeryon
Scout took off into the leaden skies of Alaska to inspect a
stretch of oil pipeline. The miniature aircraft was guided by an
engineer on the ground, armed only with a tablet computer.
The 20-minute test flight, conducted by BP Plc last
fall, was a glimpse of a future where oil and gas companies in
the Arctic can rely on unmanned aircraft to detect pipeline
faults, at a fraction of the cost of piloted helicopter flights.
It could become reality as soon as 2015, when the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) opens up American skies for the
commercial use of unmanned aircraft, popularly known as drones.
While technical shortcomings and strict regulation are
likely to limit the use of drones in the near term, the rules
governing public airspace will be more relaxed in the wilderness
of Alaska than in the lower 48 states, industry experts say.
"We're going to take baby steps," said Gary Shane, senior
project manager and chief technology officer of BP Pipelines in
North America. The company plans to deploy its first drones in
the Alaska North Slope within three years, he told Reuters.
Laid end to end, the more than 300,000 miles (480,000 km) of
natural gas pipelines that crisscross the United States would
circumnavigate the planet 12 times. There's a lot of money to be
saved by reducing the number of manned flights on these routes.
A small, unmanned vehicle fitted with a heat-sensing camera
costs about $85,000, while it costs about $3,000 to send a
helicopter to monitor an oil pipeline for an hour, said Dave
Kroetsch, chief executive of drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs Inc.
The drone, therefore, would pay for itself within 29 hours.
BP began researching the use of unmanned aircraft in 2006.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc began a year earlier. One aim,
says Shell, is to track the movement of marine mammals to assess
the impact of the company's operations in the seas off Alaska.
The Scout is the flagship product of Aeryon Labs, a private
Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario - the same
university town that gave rise to BlackBerry .
Under a meter in length, the Scout weighs 1.2 kg (2.7 lbs) -
tiny when compared with the 1,020-kg MQ-1 Predator drone used by
the U.S. military and manufactured by San Diego-based General
Aeryon Labs calls the Scout a "flying robotic reconnaissance
system". It has been used by Gaddafi-era Libyan rebels and seen
action in a Central American drugs bust. ()
A camera mounted on the drone trasmits a live feed to the
operator. In the case of pipeline work, sensors can pinpoint the
location of a suspected leak and detect signs of decay, such as
cracks or rust, said Ian McDonald, Aeryon Labs' vice-president.
With four rotors and legs allowing for vertical take-off and
landing, the Scout can also hover closer to a pipeline than any
helicopter could. Proponents of the technology say this will
help oil companies to find defects earlier than they can now.
According to a U.S. government report on pipeline safety,
the public was quicker to report pipeline leaks than companies'
in-house detection systems in a third of cases recorded between
January 2010 and July 2012. ()
SHORT FLIGHTS ONLY
So with all these advantages, why aren't more oil companies
signing up? Why do Canada's two biggest pipeline operators,
Enbridge Inc and TransCanada Corp, prefer
traditional methods for inspecting their U.S. pipeline routes?
Technology, for one thing. Drones might not be new - BP also
used the Aeryon Scout to help direct clean-up crews after the
Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 - but they are yet to be
proven for large-scale commercial use.
"We have looked at this in detail, but advanced drone
technology is largely proprietary to the U.S. military," said
Enbridge spokesman Graham White.
"Our experience is that there is still no substitute for
human eyes, knowledge and expertise when inspecting the lines."
The 20 minutes flown by the Aeryon Scout is about the most
that a small drone can manage. The sophisticated sensor systems
needed for inspection are too big for longer flights;
"miniaturizing" these sensors will take time, said BP's Shane.
Also missing from today's fleet of drones is the collision
avoidance technology that automatically instructs an aircraft to
take evasive action if an obstacle appears in its path.
While doubts persist, some oil majors are on the sidelines.
ConocoPhillips said it was interested, but that it did
not operate its own aerial surveillance program. Exxon Mobil
Corp declined to comment for this article.
David Yoel, chief executive of industry consultants
Aerospace Advisors Inc, said it would be at least 10 years
before unmanned aircraft are in common use along U.S. pipelines.
Draganfly Innovations Inc, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based
manufacturer that sold several drones to deepwater oil platforms
in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, said industry-wide sales
had begun to flag, due largely to the regulatory environment.
"Actual sales have definitely slowed, especially in the
U.S., because of people's issues with the FAA regulations," said
Kevin Lauscher, Draganfly's industrial sales manager.
INTO THE WILDERNESS
Current U.S. federal law permits only public agencies and
universities to fly drones in public airspace. BP teamed up with
the University of Alaska Fairbanks when it tested the Scout.
This should change from September 2015, by which time the
FAA is mandated by Congress to have drawn up rules for their
Even public agencies today must operate drones under strict
regulations, and these restrictions will not disappear overnight
for commercial users, industry experts say.
Such rules - drones must fly in daylight hours only, for
example, within the remote operator's line of sight and more
than five miles (8 km) from any airport, big or small - are
hardly conducive to monitoring a vast pipeline network.
Gretchen West, executive vice-president of the Association
for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said she
believed that drones would become "an important technology" for
oil and gas companies. "(But) it's still going to be several
years before it's not heavily regulated."
Alaska just might be the exception.
Its very remoteness could win it special dispensation that
would permit drones to be operated round-the-clock and
controlled from beyond the line of sight.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 - the existing
law that stipulates the September 2015 deadline for commercial
drone use - saves a separate mention for the Arctic.
"The FAA is working ... to integrate unmanned aircraft into
the Arctic region, where potential uses include wildlife
observation, oil and mineral exploration, sea ice studies and
pipeline monitoring," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
The FAA estimates that about 7,500 commercial "small
unmanned systems" - drones weighing up to 55 lb (25 kg) - will
be in operation within five years of its opening up the skies.
For companies such as Aeryon Labs and Draganfly, the
challenge will be to develop the technology to drive more sales.
"Manufacturers and start-ups see that there will be great
potential," said West. "This is going to be a great industry."