Drones can improve safety & efficiency
Unmanned aerial vehicles can support oil spill response, pipeline inspections and surface mapping without putting people at risk
Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, have gained widespread use in many applications, ranging from aerial photography to mapping. And the oil industry has seen the deployment of drones in activities such as pipeline inspection.
On March 29, during the Alaska Oil Spill Technology Symposium, Peter Webley, associate director of research in the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the University of Alaska Fairbanks, talked about the value that drones can bring to a project such as an oil spill response.
With their capability for rapid deployment and through the avoidance of placing people in potentially harmful situations, unmanned aerial vehicles are ideal for dull, dirty and dangerous three-dimensional operations, Webley said.
The ACUASI runs a research program into the practical uses of drones and is also the site of one of seven Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft test centers.
For an oil spill, an unmanned aerial vehicle, equipped with multiple sensors, can fly into the area of the spill, enabling the situation to be assessed without putting people at risk, and enabling subsequent decisions about how to use personnel, Webley said.
A team effortHowever, Webley emphasized that the drone itself is but one component of an unmanned aircraft system. Operating drones requires a team, with pilots, engineers, flight planners, operations people, and an administration to handle the necessary paperwork.
“A critical component is working together,” Webley said. “It becomes a seamless system where you can go from what’s the mission, fly the mission, collect the data, and get it into the hands of real time operators.”
Planning a drone operation involves an assessment of the necessary payloads and the number of people required for the operation. Does the transportation of the drone to the site require just a couple of people and a backpack, or is it a more complex operation, perhaps requiring more people, trucks and a ground station? An engineer may need to make modifications to a drone for a particular operation. And it is important to separate the navigation and communications systems from the communications required for data collection.
Certification of authorization will be needed if a drone is to fly above 400 feet or beyond the pilot’s line of sight.
A range of typesThere are several sizes and types of drone, with a decision on which type to use in a particular situation depending on what needs to be done and the particular setting in which the drone must operate. In general, the smaller the drone, the smaller its maximum payload and the shorter the time it can fly before its battery becomes drained. But small drones are more easily transportable than larger drones and can be quickly deployed.
As a simple form of drone for commercial use, Webley described a small portable hexacopter called the Ptarmigan, a device developed in the UAF program with a low but adaptive payload capability, focused on visible light and long-wave infrared detectors. The pilot has always to be in line of sight of the device. The flight time is quite short and depends on the wind conditions, the height above sea level and the weight of the payload.
The ResponderA somewhat larger aircraft, the Responder, has to be carried to site in the back of a pickup truck. This single blade helicopter can carry a three-kilogram load, with a maximum flight time of about 40 minutes. It is equipped for operation beyond the pilot’s line of sight and has an integrated visible and infrared camera. It is also capable of carrying a light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, system. This particular vehicle has been used, for example, for mapping a glacier and has been integrated into NOAA’s spill response mapping tool, Webley said.
UAF also has two large unmanned aircraft that weigh more than 55 pounds, the weight limit above which drones require FAA certification. These vehicles have flight durations of six to 10 hours and are optimized for flight beyond line of sight. They require a runway for takeoff and can conduct the multi-hour mapping of a hazard such as a spill. The navigation systems include satellite navigation, a feature than enables the aircraft to operate much farther north than most unmanned vehicles, Webley commented.
The UAF researchers are addressing the adaptation of drones for use in Arctic conditions. For example, cold conditions shorten battery lives, Webley said.
Camera equipmentOther considerations for drone use include the type of camera that is needed and the type of lens, with an interchangeable lens camera offering a range of fields of view. A camera system is integrated with a GPS system and an inertial mapping unit, to enable images to be linked to precise location information.
The UAF researchers have also been supporting a NASA air traffic management project, testing the operation of several unmanned vehicles in relatively close proximity. Sensor equipment enables the vehicles to see each other and automatically avoid collisions. The objective is to figure out how to integrate unmanned vehicles into the manned airspace, Webley said.