Not-So-Mindless Drones

Sky-Futures’ drones grow in popularity for inspection services

photo of drone launch
A drone is launched from an offshore platform. Several companies that offer the service were originally founded in the energy and oil and gas sector.

This article was originally published in the April issue of COMPRESSORtech2. Get every issue in your inbox/mailbox and access to our digital archives with a free subscription.

The use of drones to carry out critical inspection testing continues to gain momentum, not least in the oil and gas, marine and energy sectors.

Proponents of the use of drones for inspection duties — often in highly dangerous and demanding environments — point out that the flying machines not only enhance safety, but can provide valuable cost-saving procedures.

Several companies that offer the service today were founded in the energy and oil and gas sectors. Drones (or unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV]) have also proved popular in marine applications where, for example, they can carry out inspections in cargo holds or within intricate piping arrangements.

One company that has worked extensively in the above sectors is Sky-Futures, which has offices in Middlesex, England, and Houston, Texas, and whose clients, among others, include energy and oil and gas companies such Shell, Chevron, BP and Petronas.

Most recently, Sky-Futures USA Inc. was certified as what is thought to be the world’s first approved drone specialist for internal vessel inspections by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). ABS surveyors have now certified drone data as an additional, valuable inspection tool to make critical decisions affecting classification and statutory surveys. Sky-Futures received the “external specialist rating” by ABS following a series of assessments, including an in-office audit of all safety and inspection procedures and a two-day demonstration on a bulk carrier.

The company supplies all reports through its proprietary software called Expanse, which, according to the company, “revolutionizes the way drone-based data for industrial inspections is analyzed, viewed and managed.”

The Expanse software has three objectives. First, it reduces the time inspectors spend creating content. Second, it makes the data easily accessible. Lastly, it provides users with a data repository to maximize the value of their compounding visual image data, enabling analytics, quantification and prediction of asset integrity issues.

3d modeling
The colored points on this 3-D model represent problem areas of an anonymous platform in Expanse, Sky-Futures’ proprietary reporting software.

According to Chris Blackford, Sky-Futures’ co-founder and chief operating officer, drones are safer, faster and more cost effective than conventional inspection techniques.

“(Drones) can help companies reduce their operational expenditure by more than 30% year-on-year across all their assets,” Blackford said. Additionally, the data sets collected by drones are repeatable, quantifiable and measurable. This means the collected data can be used to do change detection on anomalies found and help start predicting the future size and condition of anomalies such as cracks and corrosion.

“Combined, this helps companies better manage their assets and prioritize their spend on maintenance.” Blackford said.

For external inspections the company uses the Intel Falcon 8, which weighs no more than about 5 lb. (2.3 kg) and is 31.5 in. x 31.5 in. (80 cm x 80 cm). It is small and can be hand launched and recovered from tight spaces, and, according to Blackford, is a very reliable and safe drone proven over the last five years in the offshore oil and gas market. For confined space inspections, such as in the tanks of a floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) unit, Sky-Futures uses the Elios Flyability drone, which is 15.75 in. (40 cm) wide and has a cage around it. Both drones carry high-definition video and thermal cameras.

“Based on feedback from our clients, drone inspections are about eight times faster than rope access and about 85% cheaper on a like-for-like basis,” Blackford said. “In addition, by using a drone to inspect a live flare, the operator does not need to shut down the platform.”

A recent case study saw a UAV team inspecting 12 offshore flares in six days. Normally the operator changed the flares every four years as they couldn’t inspect them when they are working. By using the drone, Sky-Futures said they saved the company US$6.5-7 million in inspection and flare replacement costs, not including the millions of dollars saved by not having to shut down the platforms.

Blackford said Sky-Futures has grown 250% since last year in terms of drones for oil and gas inspections. This includes inspections in the U.S., U.K., Europe, Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The drones are capable of operating in challenging weather conditions where oil and gas facilities are often located.

“We started our business in the North Sea,” Blackford said. “If you can work in the North Sea you can work anywhere in the world in terms of weather conditions.”

The drones are rated with a maximum wind limit of 29 knots, but have carried out emergency inspections in wind up to 33 knots. Rope access typically stops around 22 knots, which gives us an additional 33% in terms of weather window opportunities. Unlike a rope access team, a UAV team can be in action within 20 minutes, which allows inspections to take place in short weather windows.

All photos © 2011 Sky-Futures. Published with the permission of Sky-Futures (www.sky-futures.com).