When disaster strikes, unmanned systems can play invaluable roles in analyzing and mitigating their impact. Natural disasters like volcanoes, wildfires or hurricanes often present conditions too dangerous to observe with manned vehicles.
Manmade disasters such as leaks at a nuclear power plant may also prove too hazardous for humans, making data collection difficult and slowing the response. Under human control and operated remotely, unmanned systems can enter hazardous spaces in a way that humans simply never could. They do so by:
• Monitoring critical infrastructure (e.g. bridges, nuclear facilities, pipelines, ports and key buildings) for potential terror threats and trespassers
• Detecting chemical, nuclear or biological hazards
• Monitoring and/or assessing damage after or during a natural disaster
• Providing rapid food, water and equipment delivery to aid organizations and those impacted by the disaster
• Aiding in search-and-rescue efforts to identify survivors and recover those lost
Many of the major energy companies – including BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and ConocoPhillips Co. – want to use UAS to monitor pipelines and other energy infrastructure for erosion or leaks. Companies currently do such surveys with manned helicopters that average about $300 an hour to operate, meaning the transition to unmanned systems could bring major savings.
There are several success stories from unmanned systems monitoring pipelines in regions of the world. For example:
• ChevronTexaco purchased a system to provide pipeline surveillance in Angola in 2004.
• Testing of unmanned systems for the detection of pipeline leaks is taking place in Wyoming.
• Argentina has utilized unmanned systems for pipeline monitoring.