Energy companies, facing a future of lower oil prices, are increasingly adopting drones to inspect offshore drilling rigs and other operations as they seek to increase efficiency, cut costs and improve worker safety.
This development has provided a growing market for companies that provide drones and develop the software to collect and manage data gathered from inspections. Recently, Royal Dutch Shell awarded a five-year, multi-million-dollar contract to the Scottish company Cyberhawk, which has offices in Houston, to help the European oil major monitor both offshore and onshore operations.
The U.S. market for drones has grown quickly since 2016, when the Federal Aviation Administration adopted rules to expand the use of drones beyond hobbyists to commercial applications. Cyberhawk and other drone companies have used the opportunities opened by the FAA to build their businesses, particularly in the energy industry, where drones are used to monitor drilling sites, pipelines and refineries.
Drones and drone-based technology are becoming increasingly attractive to an oil and gas industry looking to lower costs and remain profitable in a time of tight budgets and persistently low oil prices.
Last year alone, more than 108,000 commercial operators registered their drones with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA projects the number of commercial drones flying in U.S. airspace will more than double to 828,000 by 2024 from 385,000 in 2019.
Besides the oil and gas, drones are used in a variety of industries, including construction, agriculture, security and mining.
“Drones provide a quick and efficient way of performing aerial surveillance and asset inspection,” said Ravindra Puranik, an analyst who studies the use of emerging technologies in the oil and gas industry for the London research firm GlobalData. “They cost less than a manned aircraft, are easier to deploy, and can be fitted with different types of payload for data capture.”
Drones employ technologies such as cameras that can capture multiple high-resolution photos used in mapping large areas, laser systems similar to radar and infrared camera and lasers, which can detect methane leaks along pipeline routes. In addition, different drone configurations — including quadcopters with four rotary blades, octocopters with eight rotors, and fixed-wing aircraft — have been developed to meet the needs of different companies and industries
Cyberhawk, for example, teamed up with German drone company, Ascending Technologies, to develop a drone specifically designed to perform the close-up inspections of offshore drilling rigs and other large physical assets for the oil and gas industry. The drones take on dangerous jobs, such as inspecting interiors of storage tanks or the underside of an offshore production platform, that were once done by workers.
In January 2016, Intel bought Ascending Technologies and developed the Intel Falcon 8, an octocopter whose V-shaped design is adapted for close inspections and mapping. The Falcon 8 has since become the workhorse of Cyberhawk’s drone fleet.
Cyberhawk, meanwhile, developed its proprietary iHawk software to collect data from visual images collected by the drone’s cameras, and analyze it. For example, clients looking to get data about a valve on an offshore platform, can click an image to zoom in on the desired part.
Cyberhawk was launched in 2008, led by Chris Fleming, a former offshore inspection engineer who worked in the North Sea oil fields. Over the past dozen years, Cyberhawk has grown rapidly, focusing on performing drone inspections for the energy industry.
In addition to oil and gas facilities, Cyberhawk drones also monitor electric transmission towers and wind turbines. Cyberhawk, which maintains a fleet of about 40 drones, has expanded its operations into 37 countries and employs 18 full-time drone pilots, 30 engineers and 15 software developers.
In 2016, the company opened its Houston office, which has served at the hub of its U.S. operation. At any given time, about 20 of the company’s approximately 75 employees work out of Houston.
The U.S. market accounts for about half of Cyberhawk’s revenues, the company said. Cyberhawk has decided to establish a U.S. headquarters in Denver, from where it can oversee operations on both the East and West coasts as well as Texas and surrounding oil- and gas-producing states.