HOUSTON — The unofficial rule of generating booth interest at the Offshore Technology Conference is the bigger the better. As such, the exhibition floor is packed with massive booths with multistory tools bathed in hip lounge lighting.
Off the beaten path, however, hidden treasures exist. Like the Cyberhawk Innovations Ltd. booth tucked into the back of the arena, as small as they come and as close to emergency exits and converted women’s restrooms as anything else.
But once attendees catch sight of the two camera-mounted drones — or ROAVs (Remote-Operated Aerial Vehicles) as founder Malcolm Connolly calls them — hanging from the rigging, and the stunning high-definition video of the offshore production platforms they capture, the ogling matches any booths of any of the giants and their big toys.
“It’s the child in everyone that loves flying toys,” Connolly said. “The whole idea of allying engineering with something that whizzes about in the air, it captures the imagination.”
As an inspection engineer certified to climb on and dangle from very high structures, Connolly saw first-hand a place in the market for unmanned inspections. He founded Cyberhawk in 2008 in Livingstone, Scotland, with one eye on the offshore oil and gas industry, but spent the first three years validating the technique onshore, building a solid base of construction and utilities and refinery clients, which still make up half his clients.
In 2012, Cyberhawk began offshore operations and expanded from two employees to 35, including about 15 pilots. Only five of those, however, have completed the 18-month certification it takes to fly offshore.
“I knew how difficult what we were trying to do offshore was going to be,” Connolly said. “We start them off on aerial photography, then construction and utility line inspections, then refineries, then offshore.”
Cyberhawk cut its offshore teeth in the inhospitable North Sea, and its ROAVs have a safe operating limit of 25 knots. The two-man team of a pilot and an inspection engineer provide a full inspection report, which can include 3D modeling, gathered with video, still and thermal cameras, as well as gas sensors.
The drones do not interfere with operations, meaning a plant doesn’t have to go offline, saving clients a lot of precious time and money, which explains why Cyberhawk counts all the supermajors as clients.
At OTC, however, Connolly credits the permeation of drone photography into popular culture with much of the passersby interest at Cyberhawk’s booth.
“There’s been an explosion of use in the hobby market,” he said. “A lot of people understand the market.”