Anyone that has seen the news recently will have noticed the ongoing stories about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Once the preserve of the military, UAVs are now used in a wide range of industries, from offshore platform inspections, search and rescue operations, delivery of supplies to remote regions to aerial surveillance of crops.
Civilian use of UAVs is also growing, as consumer-grade models become increasingly sophisticated and cheaper. Some people simply regard them as toys – the modern equivalent of the remote-control helicopter – while others use built-in cameras for taking aerial photos and videos.
The rules governing the use of UAVs across the world are still evolving, as the implications of these new user cases become clear. For example, the House of Lords EU Committee recently called for the compulsory registration of all commercial and civilian UAVs, amid growing concern over the use of UAVs by private individuals with little knowledge of aviation rules. In other countries, blanket bans have been put on UAVs for commercial and private use.
Currently in the UK, there is nothing to stop anyone buying a UAV and taking it out flying, as long as the UAV weighs less than 20kg and it is not being used for commercial reasons. However, flying it within 150 metres of a congested area must be avoided as well as within 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.
The aircraft must also be flown "within sight". This means it cannot go above 400 feet in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. If these boundaries wish to be exceeded, permission needs to be sought from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Anyone using a UAV for commercial use is also required to seek permission from the CAA. To get permission, individuals have to show that they are “sufficiently competent”.
UAVs and the Oil and Gas Industry
Industry recognised the value of UAVs a few years ago with some companies pushing the boundaries of technology and challenging regulations globally. UAVs have already been used by industry as a way to monitor oil fields and pipelines, particularly in areas with very few nearby residents and little air traffic. Geographical areas like these pose few logistical or safety hazards and is a relatively risk-free way of exploring the feasibility of more widespread use.
UAVs are also being used by the oil and gas industry to mitigate potential risks to employees and contractors. For example, two UK companies pilot UAVs offshore to carry out live flare stack inspections and under deck inspections in the North Sea. This has reduced the requirement for the installation of scaffolding and manual inspection hundreds of feet above the water.
So how are UAVs being used for oil spill response?
Again industry recognises the value of UAVs in oil spill response and some companies are looking at ways to use UAV technology to have “eyes in the air” to support responses on the shoreline, offshore and inland.
Oil Spill Response Organisations (OSRO’s) around the world, including OSRL, are also looking at ways to use UAVs. OSRL is in the research phase considering if, and how to apply the technology. We are working through the challenges of our global remit considering issues such as how to gain permissions to fly in each country we could respond to, what the import and export requirements are and how to transport spare lithium batteries etc. Many of these issues can be overcome but the main challenge remains with gaining permission to fly within a suitable time scale i.e. days not months.
UAVs have many potential uses in oil spill response, such as;
Assisting surveys on the shoreline and inland (short range):
- Access to sensitive sites i.e. salt marshes, mud flats, mangroves (safety/efficiency)
- Access to restricted sites i.e. rocky shores (safety/efficiency)
- Quick surveying - working ahead of the shoreline assessment teams and verifying if oil is present or segmenting the shoreline (efficiency)
- Access to confined sites with possible gas build-up (safety/efficiency)
Providing tactical support offshore (short range):
- Improving the encounter rate of containment and in-situ burning (efficiency)
- Effectively targeting dispersant spraying (efficiency)
- Monitoring dispersant effectiveness (efficiency)
- Verification of shoreline oiling (long range) - gas issues, access restrictions, conflict areas (safety/efficiency)
- Equipment/people tracking (long range) (efficiency)
- Preparedness services (long range) – sensitivity/habitat mapping, shoreline plans (efficiency)
With all of these potential options for use, OSRL needs to identify where we are looking to add value with UAVs i.e. adding another tool in the toolbox for shoreline surveying or aiming to improve encounter rates offshore - also being mindful of the advantages and disadvantages and that UAVs are not the complete solution. There are of course other options to UAVs, i.e. using aerostats (tethered balloons) offshore to improve encounter rates but these also have their challenges such as sourcing the helium gas for continued operations during a response.
If OSRL did decide to utilise UAVs there are a number of considerations, such as;
- Permission to fly
- Import and export controls
- Transport of spare lithium batteries
- Risk assessments and operating procedures
- Types of UAV models
- Flight times
- Should OSRL buy/operate the UAVs (training requirements?) or should we use a company that operates the UAVs for us and mobilises with our response teams?
There are also other technologies out there that may supersede free flying UAVs and aerostats. For example a ‘tethered UAV’ that is powered from a generator or vessel that could overcome the challenge of the short flight time (on average rotary UAVs have a maximum flight time of 20 minutes) or the task of sourcing helium gas for aerostats.
OSRL recently completed a shoreline ‘proof of concept demonstration’ with an OSRL shoreline surveying team and a professional UAV team but we still need to refine how UAVs could really add value in a spill. We are keeping track of the fast moving technology and engaging with a number of companies to explore our options. Importantly we are being guided by our company values and ethics such as our value; ‘Innovation and change - We have a passion for excellence and as such value creativity and innovation, where we challenge the norm and adopt change’