CARACAS Oct 25 Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA said on Friday it was testing unmanned aircraft to monitor energy installations and watch for spills in the country's crude heartland around Lake Maracaibo.
A series of oil spills in recent years have put pressure on the government and heightened concerns about the industry's impact on the environment of the South American OPEC nation.
The current monitoring system has relied upon human observers riding in costly three-hour helicopter flights every day.
"The introduction of unmanned aircraft as a surveillance and control system would make our environmental monitoring more efficient, and considerably reduce the costs and operational risks involved," PDVSA said in a statement.
The company did not give details on the tests, but said it was working with technicians from state-owned arms maker Cavim to develop the cameras and global positioning systems that will be installed on the drones.
The government confirmed last year it had started building unmanned aircraft as part of military cooperation with Iran and other political allies such as China and Russia.
Venezuela said at the time it had produced three of the aircraft, which are believed to be similar to the U.S.-made unarmed ScanEagle class of drones, made by Boeing Co's Insitu unit.
The government said they would be equipped with cameras and only be used for national security.
Venezuela produces about 3 million barrels per day of crude and is the fourth-biggest supplier to the United States. Its western Zulia state, which encircles Lake Maracaibo, accounts for about one-third of the country's total output.
The country, which has relied heavily on its oil industry for the last hundred years, suffers regular accidents and oil spills, especially around the very polluted Lake Maracaibo.
Zulia state is Venezuela's oldest crude production area, and the lake itself contains a tangle of antiquated pipes, pumps and other oil installations.
PDVSA routinely blames accidents on sabotage by political opponents. The opposition says years of mismanagement are to blame for a string of accidents, including last year's deadly explosion at the country's biggest oil refinery, Amuay.