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Drone inspection in an ever-evolving energy landscape

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Cyberhawk CEO, Chris Fleming, captures his thoughts on the latest developments in drone-based inspection across the energy industry and what he sees as the trends to look out for in the near future. 

With the transition to net-zero becoming more prominent, how vital is the renewables sector? 

It is vital to energy companies, and it is critical to us. Cyberhawk completed the world’s first-ever wind turbine inspection back in 2010, and the renewables sector has remained a core part of our business ever since. Today, our customers fit into three core verticals (wind, oil & gas & electricity transmission and distribution). They all either find, move, or generate energy. The blending of energy sources will become increasingly important to these companies as they seek to distance themselves from finite energy sources that are harmful to the planet and us.

That means these companies are now investing more heavily in renewable energy and already starting to derive their revenues from various income streams, such as solar power and offshore and onshore wind power, and oil and gas. 

This trend shows no sign of abating. Significant growth is forecast in the offshore renewables sector, particularly in the more established fixed wind sector, with the UK accounting for nearly 30% of global capacity, and the developing floating wind sector.

The UK, particularly the North East of Scotland and England, has the opportunity to capitalize on this growth due to its decades of oil and gas experience – which can also be said for Cyberhawk! 

The Scottish Government recently announced a £62 million energy transition fund with several renewables projects earmarked for support, so it will be interested to watch this space.

What role does the use of drones in the inspection of assets play in the energy transition and energy industry more generally than other methods of gathering data? 

I believe that energy assets will increasingly become more remote from human beings, and therefore energy companies will instinctively seek solutions that can eventually be deployed entirely remotely. Drones are not there yet in terms of complete autonomy, but it will happen in the not too distant future.

One of the key drivers in using drones for the electricity transmission and distribution industry is reducing the reliance on helicopters to conduct visual asset inspection. 

Helicopters are significant sources of air pollution, and because they release huge emissions, their usage contradicts the new net zero commitments we are seeing from these energy majors to reduce their impact on the environment. 

Another factor is an age-old concern for the energy sector; safety. Statistically, helicopters have a poor safety record. This year we had teams stood down on utility inspection projects where helicopters had crashed, killing all persons on board. No company CEO wants any of their employees or contractors killed at work and will pursue all alternatives.

It’s not surprising then that energy companies have turned to drone technology to safely conduct critical inspection campaigns, which is sure to continue. Reports say the use of drone technology for inspecting offshore oil and gas assets is predicted to grow by a further 60% over the next five years. We think it could be even more.

Have you seen any standout innovations recently regarding the use of drones in oil and gas inspection?

Firstly, we recently saw the Schiebel Camcopter S-100, a mini-helicopter UAV developed by Nordic Unmanned, carry out a long-range unmanned flight to supply a 3D printed component to a rig off the west coast of Norway for Equinor. 

At a flight range of 100km each way, this was a world-first in terms of an unmanned aviation delivery scale. 

Although this is positive for the environment as drone operations have 55 times lower carbon footprint than traditional manned delivery methods, including the use of cargo vessels, there is still work to do to make the technology more cost-competitive and accessible to the broader energy industry. It also has a payload capacity of 50kg, which limits the cargo that can be transported.

For the renewables industry, this type of technology that makes unmanned deliveries possible will be very appealing. The offshore wind farms that need to be upgraded will require equipment and tools to be transferred between turbines offshore. You may have 120 wind turbines with heavy equipment that needs to be moved between sites, so if the technology can accommodate heavier cargos, this could be a game-changer.

Secondly, methane detection has proven very successful. For example, Shell uses satellites to locate methane leaks and then deploy drones with gas sensors to pinpoint exactly where the methane is coming from.

And finally, we have seen oil and gas asset operators digitize their assets, which sees them create a “digital twin” of the original, which is then used for activities like planning maintenance or monitoring degradation. By creating a digital version on a computer of the asset, drones are being used to capture images of the asset, which can be used to create the 3D models. 

Where do you see the potential for drone use across the energy industry in the future?

One of the most significant limitations faced is the complexity of flying a drone and obtaining quality images. We are working in often hostile and high-risk environments, on a rig in the North Sea, for example, and having a lot of flying experience is essential to ensure safety and quality. Automation will change this in the future, however.

The introduction of object avoidance capabilities in drones made by industry leaders like Skydio means drones become easier to fly, and training programs can be completed in less time. 

In addition to this, the ability to fly drones completely autonomously will increase project efficiency. This is because the drone will be aware of its surroundings and fly around the asset and recognize it. With this technology advancing, it will make drones for inspection far more accessible and suitable for a broader range of projects – not just limiting it to the energy sector. 

The second area of opportunity is unlocking the power of AI and machine learning. Years ago, the inspection process meant an individual would assess an asset in person, writing up some notes on what they found, perhaps taking one or two photos, and finally writing a report. Today, asset operators have access to a vast amount of data to gather during each inspection. It can be overwhelming for many operators, and they routinely ask; how do we sort and process this amount of data?

Based on in-depth engineering, we need AI models using algorithms that provide valuable insights into the action required when a defect is identified. That way, we are not bombarding the customer with an eye-watering volume of data and telling them they need to sift through it all. We are instead delivering insights that make the inspection process more efficient than ever, and we can add real value to their operations.

Done right, this technology can be applied to the energy sector, to begin with, but it has the potential to go much further. It could even be used to map out and create photo-realistic versions of entire cities that can then be used by councils, police departments, or any other interested stakeholders to assess and analyze to improve the environment we live in. 

A realistic 3D model of Shanghai was recently created using the same technology underpinning the popular Fortnite gaming platform. This highlights the possibilities, and there’s no reason that this innovation can’t be applied to inspection services in the energy sector.

So, with the rise in AI and automation, I see the use of drone technology having the potential to grow, not just in the energy industry but much further afield. 


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