Beginner’s Comprehensive Guide to Drone Pipeline Inspections


The oil and gas sector is colossal, boasting an estimated revenue of $3.3 trillion, which represents 3.8% of the global economy. Furthermore, the industry’s expansion is being propelled by advancements in drone technology.

Drones have revolutionized numerous operations within the oil and gas sector, notably pipeline inspections. Capable of traversing extensive terrains at a fraction of traditional costs, drones capture high-resolution photos and videos, enabling stakeholders to evaluate pipeline conditions effectively.

In this article, we will delve into a comparative analysis of drone versus conventional pipeline inspection techniques, elucidate the advantages of employing drones, and address some existing challenges associated with integrating drones into pipeline surveys.

Whether you’re an engineer, inspector, or drone enthusiast, this comprehensive guide is tailored for you.

The Importance of Inspecting Pipelines

Regular inspections of oil and gas pipelines are imperative, conducted multiple times a year, to ensure their optimal functioning and avert potential hazards such as leaks, corrosion, and even catastrophic explosions.

For instance, in 2012, a pipeline in Sissonville, West Virginia, experienced a devastating explosion that obliterated three houses and inflicted damage on several others. The root cause? Neglected inspections since 1988, leading to corrosion due to deteriorating pipe coatings.

This underscores the criticality of consistent inspections. They serve as vital checks to identify corrosion, irregularities, and structural flaws, thereby mitigating risks associated with pipeline ruptures, punctures, fractures, buckling, and more.

Alarmingly, corrosion accounts for 25% of pipeline incidents. Neglecting routine inspections escalates the latent threat of pipeline failures, jeopardizing adjacent communities and the environment at large.

pipelines drone inspection

Widespread Adoption of Drones in Oil and Gas

Given the heightened environmental concerns, an increasing number of oil and gas corporations are integrating drone technology into their operational frameworks. Among the notable entities are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, among others.

These industry leaders leverage drones proactively to scrutinize and oversee not just pipelines but also both onshore and offshore drilling sites and construction zones. Moreover, drones play a pivotal role in rapid response to industrial mishaps, such as oil spills. Such advancements significantly enhance safety protocols, bolster operational efficiency, and yield cost savings across various facets of oil and gas activities.

For instance, drones facilitate real-time inspections of operational oil rigs, thereby saving substantial amounts typically incurred during shutdowns. Additionally, they offer invaluable as-built surveys for monitoring construction progress on new drilling platforms, underscoring the transformative benefits they confer.

Traditional Methods of Inspecting Pipelines

In conventional pipeline inspections, a ground crew traverses the pipeline on foot, covering approximately 6 miles daily. During this process, they employ portable leak detectors and rely on visual inspections to identify potential corrosion or leaks.

However, these manual inspection methods are both time-consuming and demanding in terms of labor. Additionally, such approaches pose undue safety hazards for workers due to proximity to the pipelines and frequently treacherous terrains.

traditional pipelines inspection

At times, inspectors employ cars or ATVs for faster mobility between inspection points, or they opt for helicopters to obtain a broader aerial perspective. However, such methods can escalate expenses rapidly, given that a standard helicopter inspection comes with a price tag of approximately $3,000 per hour.

Factoring in the cumulative hours and equipment expenditures, it becomes evident why numerous companies grapple with conducting pipeline inspections as frequently as optimal.

Benefits of Using Drones for Pipeline Inspections

Fortunately, drones present an opportunity to enhance cost-efficiency and efficacy in pipeline inspections, offering distinct advantages over conventional methods. Let’s delve into these benefits:

Leak Detection

Drones equipped with high-resolution RGB cameras and thermal sensors can capture intricate aerial imagery across expansive areas, highlighting temperature variances. This facilitates a comprehensive overview of the pipeline network. Utilizing sophisticated drone software enables the identification of anomalies within the captured footage, significantly streamlining the leak detection process while minimizing potential human errors.

Expedited Inspections

Drones not only simplify deployment logistics but also expedite the inspection timeline. Capable of reaching speeds up to 60 MPH (100 km/h) at elevated altitudes, drones can survey significantly larger territories compared to ground patrols. As an illustrative example, DJI Enterprise assisted PipeChina, an oil and gas entity, in surveying over 110 miles of pipeline within a single day.

Automated Surveillance

Drones offer the capability to pre-program specific flight paths, enabling automated routine inspections. This allows operators to receive real-time survey data effortlessly.

Emergency Response

In critical scenarios such as pipeline explosions, drones prove invaluable by swiftly providing real-time video assessments of the affected area. Such capabilities empower decision-makers to determine when it’s safe to dispatch emergency response teams. Moreover, post-natural disaster situations, like storms, can be monitored in real-time to promptly address any pipeline damages. Whether addressing pipeline failures or natural calamities, drones facilitate live aerial surveillance, safeguarding assets and potentially saving lives.

Security Measures

Given the escalating threats of vandalism, theft, and terrorism targeting pipelines, bolstered security measures become imperative. Notably, anti-pipeline activism, exemplified by events like the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) between 2016 and 2017, underscores the need for heightened vigilance. Drones can significantly contribute to security enhancement through aerial patrols, continuously monitoring pipelines and delivering real-time updates to fortify security protocols.

drone pipeline inspection

Enhancing Worker Safety

Drones play a pivotal role in enhancing worker safety by accessing challenging terrains and delivering real-time pipeline footage for remote monitoring by asset managers. Consequently, this negates the necessity for inspectors to navigate rugged landscapes, handle hazardous equipment, or risk exposure to harmful chemicals.

Furthermore, the increased frequency of drone inspections facilitates early detection of leaks and corrosion. Such proactive measures significantly mitigate the potential for future mishaps, thereby safeguarding the health and well-being of workers.

Existing Challenges of Drone Pipeline Surveys

Challenges in Drone-Based Pipeline Surveys

While utilizing drones for pipeline inspections offers numerous benefits, several challenges merit consideration:

Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)

A significant challenge for drone-based pipeline inspections is adhering to the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) regulations set forth by the FAA. Drone operators are mandated to maintain VLOS unless granted a specialized waiver, a process fraught with complexities.

However, innovative solutions have emerged to navigate this constraint. For instance, the DJI Matrice 300 RTK incorporates a “handoff” feature, enabling a secondary pilot from a distinct location to assume control of the drone mid-flight. This facilitates extended flight durations by strategically positioning multiple pilots within the drone’s VLOS.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to recognize that premium drones like the DJI Matrice 300 RTK come with a hefty price tag exceeding $10,000. This expenditure doesn’t encompass additional essentials such as cameras, supplementary batteries, and ancillary equipment. Consequently, the financial implications of adhering to BVLOS regulations can be substantial.

pipelines inspection

Managing and Analyzing Data

Drone-based pipeline inspections yield substantial volumes of data, necessitating effective strategies for review, sharing, and organization. While multiple approaches exist, leveraging specialized software solutions often proves most efficient. These platforms centralize data storage, facilitating streamlined workflows.

For instance, sophisticated drone software such as DroneDeploy enables users to capture photos along pipeline routes and seamlessly compile them into a comprehensive, high-resolution map detailing the pipeline’s health status.

Navigating Airspace Restrictions

Securing appropriate flight authorization stands as a pivotal challenge in drone-based pipeline inspections. Non-compliance risks unauthorized flight operations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) categorizes national airspace into uncontrolled, controlled, and restricted zones, each governed by distinct regulations:

  • Uncontrolled Airspace: This category remains unrestricted, obviating the need for preflight authorization.
  • Controlled Airspace: Operations in controlled airspace necessitate securing Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) authorization, typically obtainable within minutes via a designated LAANC application.
  • Restricted Airspace (No-Fly Zones): Accessing restricted airspace mandates acquiring specialized waivers from pertinent authorities, frequently governmental or military entities.
drone inspection

Next Steps: Engaging a Specialized Drone Pipeline Inspection Firm

Considering incorporating drones into your upcoming pipeline inspection? You’re embarking on an innovative journey in a rapidly evolving domain.

If you’re seeking a reputable drone service provider, look no further than The Drone Life. Our seasoned pilots have contributed to numerous infrastructure assessments, enabling clients to expedite inspection processes and integrate cutting-edge drone technology workflows. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a complimentary consultation today.