Drones are quickly becoming a game-changer in the oil and gas industry, as the flying robots perform otherwise costly and dangerous inspections of pipelines, offshore rigs and refineries.
Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM, -0.06% is one of many major oil companies using drones in its oil-and-gas production operations (Shell Oil RDSB, -0.31% and BP BP, -0.19% are among the others), but it’s also finding new ways to make use of the technology.
Exxon this year successfully used drones along the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. to contribute to a continuing research project of tracking whales. It’s typical for oil and gas companies to do environmental studies before conducting offshore operations.
“The detection allows us a greater level of awareness of where the animals are, and that helps with our mitigation strategies,” said Ashley Alemayehu, a spokesperson for Exxon.
The energy giant got into hot water in 2008 when nearly 100 whales got stranded in a shallow Madagascar lagoon and died. An independent review panel appointed by the International Whaling Commission found in 2013 that a sonar system used by an Exxon Mobil contractor was the most likely trigger for attracting the whales to the lagoon, according to The Washington Post.
Exxon contends the study’s findings and says its operations don’t diminish marine wildlife populations, though it did change practices to stop use of sonar in certain places. The company still avoids operating in areas sensitive to marine wildlife, such as migration corridors or breeding and feeding grounds.
“While there is no scientific evidence that mitigated seismic exploration causes any harm to marine wildlife, we still take extra precautions to ensure the sounds produced as part of our offshore operations have minimal interference with the communication between marine mammals,” Alemayehu said.
Exxon Mobil’s efforts to detect whales has been ongoing for 20 years now, but using drones is new. In the past, the research relied on a complicated mix of satellites and humans with binoculars to gather data.
“Satellites are limited by their orbit,” said Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, which is the company that operated the drones for Exxon. “Drones have a lot more flexibility.”
Satellites also won’t work if obstructions like clouds block their view. Exxon is currently using all three systems — satellites, human counters and drones — to corroborate the data to ensure the results are the same in each method.
Over the course of two weeks in March, a team sent out four types of drones, primarily Lockheed Martin’s LMT, +0.34% Indago UAS, to gather data over the course of 50 drone flights.
“Value is added from drones,” Gibbens said. “It makes sense to use more than one type of sensor or medium to provide different perspectives.”
Goldman Sachs analysts suggest that drones will not only make work in the oil and gas industry easier, but cheaper too. A March 2016 report estimates a potential $41 million global market for pipeline inspections and $1.1 billion market for offshore rig and refinery inspections using drones.