The applications of tomorrow’s aerial vehicles in today’s oil & gas industry

The applications of tomorrow’s aerial vehicles in today’s oil & gas industry

By Jorge Hurtado and Sofiane Boukhalfa

The recent surge in the innovation of aerial vehicles brings with it a pair of ‘green’ lenses that will help support the energy sector in its transformation to a low-carbon economy. Many of the vehicles currently being designed for future applications are relying heavily on the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

For the oil and gas industry, zero-net emission, highly efficient and driverless aerospace vehicles can fulfill the roles of exploration, mapping and surveillance of remote areas, as well as the transportation of goods and inspection of oil and gas company assets. Various improvements in renewable energy storage are allowing these vehicles to stay in the air longer and to carry higher payloads, with simplified maintenance schedules.

These developments are occurring as the oil and gas industry focuses on reducing its operational environmental footprint. While about 15% of indirect greenhouse gas emissions are produced as a result of the extraction of oil and gas, and its transport to end-users, the demand for fossil fuels is forecast to increase 25% by 2040, even as calls to reduce emissions gather pace.

Technology will be key in enabling the oil and gas industry to meet this increasing demand. Technology’s contributions could include extending operations to remote places, making the industry more operationally efficient during resource extraction, and the adoption of artificial intelligence and wearable technologies, among other things.

A recent PreScouter report investigated this area and found that the aerospace vehicles of tomorrow will target three main applications: transportation, telecommunication nodes, and surveillance and monitoring. What are the potential applications for the oil and gas industry specifically? How can oil and gas companies benefit from these aerospace technologies, beyond the traditional drones we already know about? Below, we profile several innovative aerospace vehicles and highlight their potential applications in the oil and gas industry.

Exploration, mapping, surveillance and connectivity platforms

The Stratobus™ (Thales Alenia Space) is an autonomous stratospheric aerial vehicle that operates from an altitude of ~11.81 miles (20km). The airship is capable of monitoring extensive areas by eliminating terrain masking, and due to its ability to withstand winds of up to 56 miles/hour (90 km/h), the Stratobus™ can linger over any particular area. This high altitude platform system could be an ideal aid for the oil and gas industry because it can run continuous operations for up to five years. The airship is equipped with 10,764 square feet (1,000m2) of photovoltaic cells, with a 24% efficiency rate.

Artistic representation of Stratobus. Source: Thales.

The Stratobus™ offers continuous regional coverage that can carry payloads for oil and gas operation sites either on the ground or at sea. For observation missions, it can provide video surveillance of activities of offshore platforms, and for security, it can anticipate potential terrorist attacks on infrastructure. In addition, this airship can provide real-time weather and environmental monitoring that would otherwise be impossible to measure in extremely harsh environments. It can increase network capabilities within and between areas of operation using 4G or 5G tele-communications, and allows for hyperspectral imaging (for example, for finding spectral signatures for new oil and gas fields, or to monitor assets and emissions).

Using aerial vehicles for monitoring and inspection of pipelines in well and offshore oil rigs

The Hydrogen Drone, currently being developed by Project Rachel led by the Productiv company, is the first hydrogen fuel cell-powered multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone has been reported to remain in the air for up to 70 minutes with a 5kg payload, making it twice as efficient as current battery-powered drones. The prototype aerial vehicle is testing fuel cell power modules (650W and 800W) that facilitate higher power outputs. The drone can refuel faster and has a longer flying time than those operated with batteries. The operation is quiet, and does not vibrate. The drone is equipped with a multi-rotor engine powered exclusively by hydrogen (~300 bar; at 1 bar hydrogen has approximately 7% of the density of the air) contained in a 6-litre cylinder. The payload capacity is 5kg and the drone is capable of remaining below 20 kg of maximum takeoff mass.

Fuel cell power module configuration. Source: Intelligent Energy

Productiv’s Hydrogen Drone offers a highly efficient performance due to its long travel distance, which translates to broader coverage and superior performance under harsh conditions, compared to current drones in the market. In addition, payloads can be used to equip drones with technology that can improve predictive maintenance, monitor wells and pipes, provide real-time location and asset data, support communication from remote areas, and improve automation of workflows.

Transportation of heavy loads to inaccessible places

Solar Ship is a Canadian company that has developed the prototypes of semi-buoyant aircraft designed for transporting heavy loads of up to 35 tons. Nanuq, the largest aircraft, is 100% powered by solar energy and exhibits an excellent short takeoff and landing performance. Nanuq can meet the most critical demand for transportation of cargo needed in the most isolated regions with no other access routes. Some examples of heavy loads include materials for the construction and/or decommissioning of wells, as well as large freights containing outsized loads, dangerous goods and hazardous materials. The company has also developed prototypes of two other smaller aircraft with payloads of 200kg and 2,000kg respectively. Both smaller units can be outfitted with floats that require takeoff and landing from aquatic bodies.

The three aircraft prototypes developed by Solar Ship. Source: Solar Ship.

Aerial vehicles for exploration, observation, communication, and gathering of real-time data

The h-aero® is a solar-powered helium unmanned aerial vehicle that offers versatile monitoring capabilities with interesting applications that can be extended to oil and gas activities. It can be used, for instance, in resource exploration surveys, for close-up inspections of wells and pipes, for internet and communication relay purposes, and to provide real-time monitoring of assets. This UAV is made of fiber composites, canvas and high-density foils. Solar cells allow the flight system to complete an entire day mission with a payload of 3kg.

The h-aero solar-powered helium UAV. Source: h-aero.

The h-aero® is able to switch between a rotationally symmetric (helicopter) and a mirror-symmetric (airplane) configuration, allowing for a variety of missions. The company is currently in an initial market commercialization stage which can help to customize the requirements needed for particular industrial activities.

Staying ahead of the aerial vehicle curve

As seen so far, the evolution of aerospace vehicles for tomorrow provides a myriad of applications for the oil and gas industry. The proliferation of these vehicles is enabled by developments in fuel cells, batteries, and solar panels, among others. Most oil and gas companies are still using traditional unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft for monitoring or transporting applications.

For increased safety, environmental performance, productivity, efficiency, and reliability, and to stay relevant in a changing energy landscape, firms need to start considering the benefits and new applications being enabled by these new designs and energy storage solutions.

This article first appeared in the EIC’s Spring 2020 edition of Energy Focus. Featured image: Shutterstock.

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