A drone is flown for recreational purposes in the sky above Syosset, New York on August 30, 2015
© Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Drones have been dropping missiles on military targets for years, but their commercial use in the energy sector is just getting under way.

The world’s biggest oil and gas companies are turning to unmanned aerial vehicles rather than people, for inspecting and monitoring offshore rigs, pipelines, storage tanks, flare stacks and other infrastructure.

“It’s far safer, quicker and more cost-effective than incumbent techniques,” says Chris Blackford, co-founder and chief operations officer at Sky Futures. His drone inspection company, headquartered in London, specialises in the oil and gas industry.

Conventional techniques, particularly miles out at sea, involve abseiling workers who must brave poor weather conditions and dangle from wires to inspect and log the deterioration of physical infrastructure. Companies such as Sky Futures use remotely operated drones equipped with high-definition video and thermal cameras to carry out much of the same work.

“The inspection data we can collect in five days takes rope-access technicians about eight weeks,” says Mr Blackford, who counts BP, Royal Dutch Shell, BG Group and Statoil among its client base.

The use of robots instead of people means that operational shutdowns occur less frequently, helicopters are not required and neither must vessels stand by in case of emergencies.

Mr Blackford, a British Army veteran, says: “For companies that are rushing to cut costs but do not want to compromise on safety, this is a big attraction.” His idea for the business sprang from his experience in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The steep fall in oil price over the past year has no doubt focused minds, and Sky Futures’ business is booming. Energy companies have been on a cost-cutting mission: slashing investment budgets; reducing headcounts; and trying to rein in spending on everything from information technology to the cost of servicing contractors.

“When oil prices were at $100 a barrel and companies were making a lot more money, it didn’t really matter how long you took to do these inspections or how many people you used,” says Mr Blackford. “Demand for our services has doubled this year from 2014 levels, and is expected to treble next year,” he adds.

In terms of markets for expansion, the company is focusing on Asia and the US, getting the nod from federal regulators — the Gulf of Mexico has a third of the world’s 10,000 rigs.

Companies such as Sky Futures are considered data companies rather than drone providers. They are building information databanks that can measure defects and corrosion and can send more regular, accurate updates to companies that span the energy sphere, from oil and gas exploration to renewables and utilities.

Other companies include Cyberhawk Innovations of Scotland. Its services extend to the inspection of wind turbines, communications towers and railway lines. The US’s PrecisionHawk also monitors crops and helps icebreakers navigate through heavy ice.

There are now hundreds of companies that have received approval from the US federal government to operate drones for commercial purposes, from aerial photography to pizza delivery.

When regulators issue a complete set of rules regarding drones in the next year, it could act as a catalyst for more businesses to enter the field.

Several large companies have already taken the plunge. A landmark in the progress of civil operations by unmanned airborne systems occurred in 2013, when ConocoPhillips, an oil group, launched a surveillance drone from a ship off Alaska to test its navigation and sensors and help streamline the approval process for future flights in US airspace.

Conoco said at the time that drones could be used to monitor ice floes and whale movements, providing information on threats and environmental risks while drilling in Arctic seas.

Over the past year, oil groups Royal Dutch Shell and Apache have also dabbled in the technology. BP too deploys drones to inspect pipelines in remote areas of Alaska.

Analysts say oil and gas companies will emerge as prime users of drones, given that exploration and production tend to take place offshore or in sparsely populated areas. Sending inspection crews far into isolated or difficult terrain can be expensive and dangerous, so UAVs reduce the need for risky and expensive ferrying of staff by helicopter.

This month NNPC, Nigeria’s national oil company, said it planned to deploy drones routinely to tackle theft as well as the risk of mechanical failure across its fleet of oilbearing vessels working along its coast.

Assuming drones can prove a match for direct human inspection, their potential could be immense say analysts at consulting company Accenture. “Pipelines span thousands of miles, manufacturing facilities offer potential exposure to hazardous chemicals, and production platforms are often remote, in deep water and arctic environments. The complexities, risks and scales involved are immense.”

This article was amended on September 10 to clarify that BP is already using drones for inspections in Alaska

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