FEATURE-In Alaska's oilfields, drones count down to takeoff

Fri Jun 7, 2013 9:03am EDT
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By Krithika Krishnamurthy

June 7 (Reuters) - 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.   Continued...