Oil rig inspection is a dangerous business. Traditionally roughnecks dangled from a wire, in gale-force winds if needed, to manually log wear and tear on the girders. Assessments include giant chimneys – called flare stacks – that belch fire during million-dollar-a-day shut-downs.
Increasingly, the industry has found that swapping abseiling humans for small drones equipped with high-definition and thermal cameras can save time, cut costs and improve safety.
“These are large metal structures in a big pond of sea water. They will rust a lot, particularly in the North Sea where rigs designed to last 20 years are lasting more than 40. They are continually getting cracks and physical damage from the waves and need to be refurbished and fixed,” explains Chris Blackford, Sky Futures’ chief operations officer.
Sky Futures – headquartered in London – is a drone inspection company specializing in the the oil and gas industry and counts BP, Shell, Apache, BG Group and Statoil among its clients. It’s one of a handful of companies – including CyberHawk, PrecisionHawk and SenseFly – finding commercial applications for drones.
Drones can inspect the rig without shutting down operations
Drones can inspect the rig without shutting down operations Sky Futures
“We decided to focus on oil and gas because the barriers to entry are very high, but there are real problems to be solved and the economics were better, despite the very low oil price,” Blackford explains.
Business, Blackford says, is booming. Although the first drone inspections were carried out five years ago, demand for Sky Futures’ and Cyberhawk’s services has surged, more than doubling in the last year alone.
At the start of 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration finally relaxed its stance on drones flying in U.S. airspace, giving companies like Sky Futures access to the world’s largest offshore market. “We will continue doubling if not tripling revenues over the next three to five years,” says Blackford.
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