Drones Could Be Used to Monitor Fracking Infrastructure

Surveillance drone in action.
Surveillance drone in action.

By Tom Knox, Columbus Business First

Drones could soon be buzzing over oil and gas infrastructure in eastern Ohio as engineering firms eye the devices as a cost-saving way to better survey massive developments.

The use of drones – small, unmanned aerial vehicles that are increasingly finding business uses – is already happening in the Utica shale play, but it’s nascent. Uses range from flying over new and existing pipelines for maintenance to reviewing large projects that a potential buyer wants to ensure are in solid shape. Drones could be cheaper than manned airplanes and record better images from multiple angles.

Central Ohio firms are already using or want to use the technology to help clients, but federal regulations are up in the air.

“We’re currently looking at it, but the big holdback is the Federal Aviation Administration,” said Jeff Miller, corporate survey practice lead for Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. in Worthington. “We don’t want to do anything that’s illegal.”

The FAA generally forbids drones for commercial use. Some industries, like film and aerial surveying, have exemptions from the ban, and the FAA is expected to permit broad use of drones weighing 55 pounds or less this year, CNET reports.

Unlike hobbyists, not just anyone can fly a drone for commercial use. The FAA requires prospective pilots to apply for a license with specific requirements that includes being certified as a private pilot. That means the pool of potential pilots flying around pipelines is small.

Dublin-based Hull & Associates Inc. has used a drone through a company that specializes in them. An oil and gas company wanted Hull to evaluate hundreds of sites it was looking to buy on the Ohio/West Virginia border. Hull partnered with the company that flew a drone around and took photos of the assets, from wellpads to tank batteries to compressor stations.

The drone took photos instead of hiring an expensive airplane or reviewing outdated aerial pictures.

“We evaluated and documented conditions now,” said Matt Hammer, a senior project manager at Hull based near Cleveland.

In woodsy, hilly Appalachia, a drone can provide clear, updated photos in remote areas. It’s difficult to find an aerial photographer in the area, Hammer said.

“This is really the only way to do this and it’s very convenient,” he said. “More than being cool, it really helps someone understand current site conditions.”

Miller’s company is putting an application together to the FAA. Civil & Environmental Consultants would likely contract it out since a licensed pilot is needed, but the company could hire one if enough work came.

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