WILLISTON, N.D. — Drone technologies first used to help troops track and engage enemies in distant battlefields are finding a lucrative market in remote U.S. oil fields, another environment where it can be difficult to put eyes on the ground.
"Humans have to do the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull missions," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone industry lobbying group. But drones can do some oil field jobs more effectively, efficiently and likely cheaper than manned operations, he said.
While the commercial use of drones is largely banned, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed oil giant ConocoPhillips to use unmanned aircraft systems in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field last year and granted a similar permission to British Petroleum there in June. Now Zach Lamppa, president of Energy Intelligence and a man with experience in pipeline construction, hopes to utilize drone technology for pipeline monitoring in the oil fields of North Dakota, the nation's second-biggest oil producer.
Underground pipelines have been responsible for the state's largest oil field spills, including a July mishap that sent 1 million gallons of saltwater into the badlands.
"As there's more public concern about safety, increased monitoring standards are going to be implemented to not have these incidents that have such a negative shadow cast on the industry," said William Semke, director of the University of North Dakota's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering program.
Pipelines are checked for problems by occasional manned aircraft flyovers, on-the-ground observations by foot or vehicle, production loss reports and — if the pipeline is equipped with them — fiber-optic early warning systems.
But the primary methods for identifying problems are "pretty archaic," said Lamppa, and often leave the subterranean spills undiscovered for days.
Using technology like thermal infrared imagery and multi-spectral imagery, sensors attached to drones can see things the eye can't, Semke said. Sensors could even be able to detect particles in the air indicating a problem at a pipeline, he said.
"Whether you're an energy company or you're an environmentalist, this project is a good one," said Lamppa. He added that he hopes to begin test flights this fall, but permissions from the FAA for test flights and ultimate wider approval remains a long process.
Thousands of miles away at the Arctic Circle, AeroEnvironment Inc. is already operating unmanned aircraft for BP in Alaska's North Slope, surveying gravel roads and pipelines using 3-D technology.
The Puma drones used by AeroEnvironment in Alaska were also used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — and Vice President of Marketing Steve Gitlin said 80 percent of the Pentagon's drone fleet comes from the company.