Robotics/unmanned systems

Drones Move From “Nice To Have” to Strategic Resources for Projects

A presentation at the 2020 Offshore Technology Conference Asia described a study of unmanned aerial vehicles operated by off-site pilots based in remote control centers many miles from the facility.

Source: Getty Images.

While drones have been used on oil and gas facilities for video inspections and other tasks, they have been operated by an on-site pilot or one positioned on a bobbing workboat adjacent to an offshore platform. Now a proof-of-concept study conducted by TechnipFMC has tested the feasibility of a global drone system with drones operated remotely by pilots based anywhere in the world. The study is the subject of a paper (OTC 30241) presented at the Offshore Technology Conference Asia in Kuala Lumpur in November.

Construction supervision and health, safety, and environmental (HSE) monitoring were the main drivers of the study. The construction supervision application is part of a larger digitalization ambition to monitor and manage construction activities with data generated from the drone ultimately feeding an internal software dedicated to this business process. Potential HSE applications include crisis management, human safety, evacuation assistance, ­hazardous-area identification, traffic control, carbon-footprint reduction, and environmental surveys.

One of the study’s main objectives was to move from traditional unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAV) to resident systems and to investigate the possibilities they could offer. Aerial views have been used extensively to reduce personnel exposure in specific situations such as difficult access or potentially dangerous inspection areas like active flares, confined spaces, or high structures. In these cases, the drones are controlled by an on-site pilot who is either within their line of sight or a short distance away.

Combining AUV technology with embedded and associated intelligence from the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud and edge computing should enable drones to fly safely in complex and dynamic environments, resulting in integrated, resident systems that are permanently deployed at construction sites and available 24/7 without the need for an on-site certified pilot. Implementing these technologies will make data accessible and available in real time to people working on the project worldwide and it will also generate new work processes for project management and execution.

Flying test arrangement showing remote-control center and attendees’ locations. Source: OTC 30241.

Flight and Operations Testing

According to the paper’s primary author, Nicolas Tcherniguin, ­manager of offshore business and technology with TechnipFMC, digital tools such as image recognition, machine learning, and simulation of digital twins based on the drone’s flight have been tested. Remaining bottlenecks have been identified, and some have been addressed while others will require additional efforts. AI development will offer additional features, especially if they can be integrated with other ground monitoring devices.

The security level of the global drone system is enhanced with an architecture of hardware and software. A remote-control interface secures the mission planning, performance, and data collection through features such as geofencing, smart navigation algorithms, real-time monitoring of vital flight parameters, and secure remote connections using available internet protocol or Global System for Mobile Communication networks. According to Tcherniguin, a couple of hours of training are adequate for an operator to be able to control a drone in a safe, secured, and limited flight envelope, avoiding any interferences with the environment and obstacles and in strict compliance with local regulations.

This cloud-based interface also allows sharing of live-streaming data to the project team members wherever they are located, simultaneously storing the data on the cloud. The integrated control platform offers new opportunities to supervise and potentially manage construction projects.

Three remote flight sessions were conducted over 1 year to demonstrate different features linked to advanced drone systems. TechnipFMC’s Flexi France site 200 km west of Paris was used as a live testing facility. In collaboration with different startups, a professional ecosystem was gathered to demonstrate what is already ­achievable and what will be feasible in the future. For the last of the three sessions, flights took place in France, the remote-control center was in Rome, Italy, and the attendees were everywhere around the globe.

Going Forward

Future deployment of resident ­systems will require more logistics and the use of more complex technologies and systems, resulting in higher costs. Current and future applications to maximize return on investment may include 4D planning, safety and security, inspection, mapping, monitoring, and tracking. It is anticipated that others will emerge with the development of AI and advanced tooling or sensing capabilities.

Since the last flight test, drones are being used on a first offshore structure construction project in Louisiana. The drones are not yet fully resident, but they embed AI to secure operations and provide valuable insights into the construction activities.

For Further Reading

Evaluating the Implementation of Resident UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Into Oil and Gas Industrial Facilities and Construction Sites by N. Tcherniguin, TechnipFMC, R. Mortier, Ingénieurs Créatifs, and J. HuiChoo Tan, TechnipFMC.