March 6, 2015
Inside a former bowling alley in Pittsburgh, the future of environmental protection could be taking flight. It’s 3.5 pounds of technology and it’s whipping around a vacant floor above a robotics lab.
“We can fly up to 40 miles an hour,” says Dick Zhang, the founder and CEO of Identified Technologies, a startup making drones for use in the oil and gas industry.
Zhang is showing off what he’s calling the ‘Boomerang’—basically a tiny, four-propeller helicopter programmed to return to a docking station. It’s rigged with several devices tucked inside a small carbon fiber body. It’s got a camera, an ‘optical flow’ sensor—the same technology a computer mouse uses to track its movement—and an ultrasound sensor.
“The ultrasound is basically a proximity sensor—'I'm close to the ground—I’m not close to the ground,'" Zhang says.
Zhang has already leased several units to oil and gas companies in the Marcellus Shale region. Right now, they’re using the flying bots to map and survey their sites.
The drones could also be outfitted with other sensors—ones that could detect plumes of harmful chemicals seeping out of oil and gas operations. That represents a growth opportunity, Zhang says.
“There’s a huge opportunity to get into methane detection,” Zhang says.
With new rules anticipated from the EPA to keep methane leaks at a minimum, the oil and gas industry may need to become better at checking for leaks. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and the main component of natural gas. It’s also a highly flammable commodity, so companies spend a lot of time trying to prevent its release.
Right now pipeline companies look for leaks with handheld devices either on the ground or in helicopters. But these are expensive and time consuming.
Zhang thinks drones like his could take over some of this work, “and hopefully one day be able to prevent pipeline explosions.”
Scientists who have been trying to resolve an ongoing debate about how much gas is leaking out of oil and gas operations could also stand to benefit from drones.
“I think there's tremendous potential to use unmanned vehicles to monitor wellpads to identify the few percent of operations where leaks are pretty high to the atmosphere,” says Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist from Stanford who is studying air and water impacts of the oil and gas boom.
Jackson says the primary users for drones would be companies themselves. But he also sees a potential for scientists and regulators to monitor wellpads and other oil and gas infrastructure.
Despite the high hopes, drones aren’t yet ready for prime time in the field. It’s difficult to get FAA permission to fly them. They’re also fighting a stigma from their original use, as weapons used by the military.
“Right now people think drone—they think missile coming out of it,” says Pei Zhang (no relation to Dick Zhang), an electrical and computer engineer at Carnegie Mellon University.
Pei Zhang thinks public attitudes could change. He’s studying how to use drones in hard-to-reach and dangerous places—like a leaky nuclear reactor or in a burning building. He thinks they’re well-suited to looking for potential problems for oil and gas.
“They don’t get tired, and they don’t get forgetful, and they’re always paying attention,” Pei Zhang says.
Oil and gas companies have already started using drones, like BP's operations in the Arctic.
But there’s a potential for more deployment, says Maryanna Saenko, an analyst with Lux Research.
“In the oil and gas market you have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure spread out over a massive landmass,” Saenko says. “We’re talking about millions of miles of pipelines, offshore oil rigs, onshore drilling facilities.”
Saenko says the market for oil and gas drones could top $247 million a year in 2025.
“And we foresee it only growing past that,” she says.
This could yield much more data than companies currently report. This could raise interesting questions about what happens with all this new data.
“How much data can we really require these companies to give the EPA?” says Saenko. “And will the EPA be able to deal with this data in an effective way?”
The question will likely have to wait on an answer.
The FAA’s recently proposed regulations limit the range of flights by mandating operators be in the ‘line of sight’ of their drones.
Advocates for drone use say if those regulations were loosened, by allowing for 'line-of-sight' to include video monitoring of drones, for instance, it could help oil and gas companies keep a better watch on their operations.
Saenko says the concerns that drones could pose a safety risk or violate privacy would be minimal because oil and gas infrastructure is usually in sparsely or unpopulated areas.
“We’re not talking about flying drones in the middle of a city,” says Saenko. “It would be silly if it didn’t happen. There’s a lot more benefits to using drones to do inspection than there are potential pitfalls.”
Photo of drone: Reid R. Frazier. Video production by Reid R. Frazier and Kathy Zhao.