New drone testing sites could boost oil industry use (video)

HOUSTON — A Federal Aviation Administration decision to permit testing of drones in Texas and at sites throughout the country will open the door to more use of unmanned aircraft by oil companies.

The oil industry has been a leader in the use of drones for surveying land and equipment. ConocoPhillips received a permit from the FAA to conduct the first ever commercial drone flight in U.S. airspace, which it held in September.

Commercial drone flights have otherwise been prohibited in the country.

The company launched a drone over Alaska’s Chukchi Sea during a 36-minute flight that tested the aircraft’s sensors and navigation systems.

ConocoPhillips launched the 40-pound drone from a ship located in Arctic waters about 120 miles off of Alaska’s north coast, according to the company.

“We are still figuring out all the ways drones can be valuable to us from an operational and economic standpoint,” said John Hand, a technology program manager for ConocoPhillips, in the most recent edition of the company’s Spirit magazine. “But our main interest is in the ways they can spare our people from exposure to potentially hazardous conditions. That will always be their biggest value.”

Drones also can operate at much lower costs than manned aircraft.

The cost of inspecting an Alaska pipeline with a manned aircraft is about $8,000 per hour, but a drone would be able to conduct the same inspection for $300 an hour, ConocoPhillips said.

Drones also remove the difficulties of sending humans into rugged terrain to inspect and examine equipment and oil fields.

Additionally, drones can fly lower and slower than manned aircrafts, allowing for much more detailed inspections of pipelines, Hand said.

The oil industry has been studying the use of drones in a variety of capacities.

Models on display at the 2013 Offshore Technology Conference in Houston included a programmable plane that could examine onshore oil fields.

Other types of drones included underwater robots that could survey pipes and other systems along the seafloor, or remote-controlled versions that could be operated by pilots on the surface.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it would allow for testing of commercial drones at sites in several states, including Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The agency also approved testing at sites in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Virginia.

The oil industry is especially active in three of those states: Alaska, Texas and North Dakota.

These are examples of drones designed for the oil industry on display at OTC this year: