Many businesses are starting to recognise the value of drones and are integrating them into their operations. Schiebel head of capability engineering Chris Day looks at the cost-cutting and efficiency benefits of UAVs in the oil and gas sector.
Last year saw a flurry of corporations publicise their experiments with drones - online retailer Amazon announced it was in the process of developing a fleet to distribute small parcels; Domino's DomiCopter was the first to deliver pizza by air; and Yo! Sushi trialled miniature unmanned helicopters in its restaurants, carrying prawn crackers to bemused customers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is even discussing the possibility of allowing filmmakers to use UAVs for aerial photography.
Commercial use of UAVs is very much in its infancy, but there is a growing sentiment that they are here to stay and corporations across many sectors are keen to explore their potential.
"The civil market, in particular the oil and gas sector, is experiencing a surge in UAV activity," says Chris Day, head of capability engineering at Schiebel, a Vienna-based manufacturer. "There is a general recognition across the aviation community that they aren't going away in the immediate future."
Legislation that supports UAVs entering civil airspace is now being addressed with some vigour. For oil and gas companies, this couldn't come sooner. With operations often conducted in regions where security is a concern or access is complicated, unmanned aircraft offer a low-risk solution to threats posed by humans and the environment.
"UAVs are a clear alternative to the manned aviation companies that currently support the sector with security and investigation vehicles," says Day. "There are already different systems out there today, but I think the energy sector is still unclear on exactly how effective UAVs are when it comes to cost and capability. We're on a very strong campaign at the moment to get the message out."
Recently, the FAA granted BP permission to fly drones across the US for the purpose of pipeline surveillance. The five-year contract will see UAVs map pipelines, roads and equipment in Alaska. It is the first large-scale contract of its kind in the US and was described by FAA transportation secretary Anthony Foxx as an "important step towards broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft".
Schiebel's Camcopter S-100 looks like a conventional helicopter, albeit considerably smaller at just 3m long. Transporting it around the world is significantly easier compared with most manned systems. Considering the remote locales that pipes run through, this is a huge advantage to oil and gas companies.
"We fit the complete systems into standard containers and ship them all over the world on a daily basis," says Day. "Flexible, easily deployable and cost effective - it fits perfectly into the requirements of oil and gas companies. We don't need a hangar or a large support outfit, and we can deploy it from any place where there's a dirt track or bit of open space.
"That is clearly a great benefit for the many oil and gas companies exploring areas where infrastructure is not particularity good. It's now a very mature product that has multiple customers around the world, which is critical because you don't really understand your system until you've tested it everywhere, from the desert to the Arctic."
A ruggedised electronic box is linked to an antenna that communicates with the vehicle and two laptops, one for mission planning, and the other to relay video and sensor information. Capable of being launched from the most challenging sites, the launch process is fully automated and, once airborne, can fly 200km in any direction. In a single day, it can complete multiple 400km expeditions and, should the need arise, course alteration is handled through the laptop's electronic maps.
"The training programme is simple," Day explains. "Standard operators can be mobilised in six to eight weeks to control the Camcopter, so you don't have the overheads of pilots. The UAV itself is rapidly reconfigurable; one minute you're doing security, the next you're hunting for untapped oil reserves. We can attach a range of sensors to the Camcopter, depending on exactly what the pipeline inspection is trying to cover."
One of the most common uses has been to evaluate changes in vegetation encroachment to the pipeline and urban spillover in adjacent areas, plotted through a LIDAR. Depending on what sensor is fitted, it can detect leaks, chemical-spill analysis and general security checks - all conducted from the ground.
The Camcopter S-100 can cruise at 115mph and has a service ceiling of 18,000ft. Day has no doubts about the commercial heights the Camcopter can reach.
"It's a very powerful, simple tool," he says. "I think it will become a standard piece of equipment for oil and gas companies, and there's no continent now where we don't have activity or planned demonstrations. What we've learnt is that maturity is key. The value of the experience we have gathered from the environments and operators we've worked with is inestimable. We're comfortable it can function from anywhere on the planet."
Manned helicopter missions usually have a total endurance of two hours; depending on their configuration, UAVs can fly between six and ten hours before having to refuel. With five times the persistence, air superiority is not the issue for unmanned systems. Challenging preconceptions, demonstrating the benefits and translating superior performance into market share are the real battlegrounds.