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Could drones detect leaks at oil and gas sites?

Mar 12, 2015

A startup is making drones for use in the oil and gas industry.
Credit Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

Some people think drones could help detect pollution and dangerous leaks from the oil and gas business. The technology is taking off, but federal regulations could hold back the use of these drones.

Inside a former bowling alley in Pittsburgh, the future of environmental protection could be taking flight. Dick Zhang is CEO of Identified Technologies, a startup that makes small drones.

“We can fly up to 40 miles an hour; that’s the safety envelope for our operations," he said.

Zhang is showing off what he’s calling the Boomerang — basically a tiny helicopter programmed to return to a docking station. It’s rigged with several devices tucked inside a small carbon fiber body.

"Right now we've got three sensors facing down—it’s an actual camera—there’s something called optical flow that’s basically what you put on the bottom of your mouse to track what’s moving," he said.

Leak detection from the sky

While drones are getting big in agriculture and construction, the oil and gas industry could also be a popular use. Zhang has already leased several units to oil and gas companies in the Marcellus Shale region to map and survey their sites. But there’s another use he could see for his drone.

"There’s a huge opportunity to get into methane detection," he said.

That’s because of pressure on the companies to limit emissions of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas and the main component of natural gas. Of course, it’s also a highly flammable commodity, and companies don’t want to just let it leak out of pipes.

Right now pipeline companies look for leaks with handheld devices either on the ground or sometimes in helicopters. But that’s expensive and inefficient. Zhang thinks drones like his could take over some of this work and help prevent pipeline explosions.

New tech fights FAA for flight

"They don’t get tired, and they don’t get forgetful, and they’re always paying attention," —Pei Zhang, on the potential of drone-monitoring.

Drones aren’t yet ready for prime time in the gas fields, however. It’s difficult to get FAA permission to fly them. They’re also fighting a stigma from their original use, as weapons used by the military.

"Right now people think drone—they think missile coming out of it, " said Pei Zhang, a researcher with Carnegie Mellon University.

But he thinks public attitudes could change. He's studying how to use drones in hard-to-reach and dangerous places — like a leaky nuclear reactor or in a burning building. He thinks they’re well-suited to looking for potential problems for oil and gas.

"They don’t get tired, and they don’t get forgetful, and they’re always paying attention," he said.

Untapped potential

Oil and gas companies have already started using drones in the Arctic. But there’s a potential for more, says Maryanna Saenko, an analyst with Lux Research.

"In the oil and gas market, you have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure spread out over a massive landmass — so, we’re talking about millions of miles of pipelines, offshore oil rigs, onshore drilling facilities."

She said the market for oil and gas drones could top a quarter billion a year in 2025 and even predicts it growing past that.

This could yield much more data than companies currently report—that, according to Saenko, raises an interesting question:

"How much data can we really require these companies to give the EPA and will the EPA be able to deal with this data in an effective way?" 

It’s a good question—but it might be moot unless the federal government makes flying unmanned aircraft easier. The FAA’s recently proposed regulations limit drones to short flights. Advocates for drone use say if those regulations were loosened, it could be good for the environment. That’s because the longer drones can fly over infrastructure like pipelines, the more they’ll be able to see.