The Middle East is home to a growing number of aging oil and gas assets, and stringent asset integrity programmes are a fundamental part of ensuring these mature assets continue to operate safely and efficiently.
As operators, services companies and national oil companies look to innovation to address the challenge of costly asset management programmes, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are emerging as a new influencer in the region’s oil and gas inspection market.
UAV technology offers an inspection method which is not only proven to be half the cost of traditional alternatives, but also dramatically reduces safety risks and maximises uptime, hence increasing production efficiency. This is a breakthrough for a region facing pressure to do more with less budget, much like the rest of the global oil and gas industry.
Fitted with high definition video, still and thermal cameras, UAVs are used to inspect tall, inaccessible and live structures. Data captured is then converted into valuable information by qualified oil and gas inspection engineers, and the resulting inspection reports can be used by asset managers to make and justify repair and maintenance decisions.
UAV inspection is not only up to 20 times more efficient than other inspection methods, for instance rope access, but means that multiple workscope inspections can be undertaken in one mobilisation, for instance online splash zone, risers, elevations, internal tanks, overboard structures, flare and derrick. This allows the asset manager to better plan maintenance and turnarounds, and results in increased facility uptime and reduced deferment.
Despite the huge potential on offer, UAV operations in the Middle East have been adopted at a much slower rate that the rest of the world due to a number of obstacles. Several governments have implemented regulations and, in some cases, banned UAV operations due to air space safety and security concerns. A previous lack of adoption has made it challenging for operators to secure the necessary flight permissions to work within the region.
Up until recently these factors have acted as barriers, however as interest and confidence in the technology grows, the Middle East has proven to be a growing market for UAV inspections.
Cyberhawk Innovations, the world leader in drone inspection and survey, has been instrumental in building this momentum, undertaking the Middle East’s very first oil and gas UAV inspection back in 2012.
Headquartered in Scotland, UK and with international offices in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Houston, Cyberhawk carried out the very first UAV industrial inspection in 2009, and has since safely completed more than 20,000 commercial flights.
Since its first flight in the Middle East, Cyberhawk has played a key role in influencing some positive changes. In 2016, the company secured a three year framework agreement with Dubai Petroleum for UAV inspections across all of its offshore assets. The first of its kind for the Middle East, the agreement was awarded to Cyberhawk following the successful completion of work for Dubai Petroleum in 2015.
This builds upon the company undertaking the first ever commercial oil and gas inspection in Qatar in March 2016, a result of lobbying the Qatari government to advise on the potential and benefits arising from UAV inspection.
Both workscopes are a hugely encouraging sign that the benefits of UAV technology are not only being recognised, but most importantly, understood. Having inspected numerous assets in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman and Qatar, Cyberhawk continues to demonstrate how experienced UAV operators are safely supporting asset integrity management programmes in the Middle East.
Qatar’s first live flare inspection
A natural gas producing company based in Qatar called upon Cyberhawk to conduct the first ever commercial flare inspection in the country.
The workscope involved the inspection of 136m high flares at an onshore oil and gas refinery.
The commercial use of UAVs in Qatar had previously been heavily regulated by the Qatari government due to concerns over security of airspace and privacy of citizens. However, Cyberhawk embarked on an extensive campaign lobbying the government to explain the vast benefits of utilising UAVs. After a thorough assessment of the company’s previous Middle East projects, a panel of authorities granted an exclusive permit for Cyberhawk to conduct the workscope.
An experienced team of two from Cyberhawk, including an industry qualified inspection engineer and oil and gas qualified inspection pilot, was mobilised to undertake the work and took just two days to conduct the full inspection. Alternative methods such as rope access or scaffolding would have required months for completion, shutdown of the facility and also would have increased risks to personnel, such as working at height.