Australia’s natural-gas developers are striving to become ultra-competitive in a challenging global market. For Shell Australia’s newly acquired Queensland Gas Company (QGC), an 18-kilogram unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a 3-metre wingspan represents the kind of collaboration and innovation that the industry needs in order to propel efficiencies to the next order of magnitude. Never before have Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations been commercially applied on such a scale.
Queensland’s Surat Basin has some 4,000 coal-seam-gas (CSG) wells dotted over many tens of thousands of square kilometres of paddock and pasture. The wells and the pipelines that collect and stream gas for processing require periodic inspection to ensure that they’re functioning safely and smoothly. These jobs are traditionally carried out by people, maintenance teams, travelling in vehicles along country roads and tracks, opening and closing farm gates, usually arriving at each well to tick a box: NO MAINTENANCE REQUIRED. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have also been used to speed operations. It’s all necessary, but poor use of a person’s time. And, fly or drive, the routine is not favoured by OH&S—having employees spend long hours behind the wheel or on the wing in remote country areas poses risks to their health and safety. Landholders don’t like the human intrusions either. “As all Australians would know, a farm is more than just a business, it’s a family’s backyard.” says Andrew Smith, Shell Country Chair, Australia and New Zealand.
Enter with a swoop, the ScanEagle UAV developed by Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company, to gather data from on high—operating at altitudes between 450 to 900 metres. Created originally to serve the tuna industry, ScanEagle has racked up 883,000 operational flight hours in commercial and military applications.
Says Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific, which partnered with QGC in 2014 to trial the system for inspection of gas infrastructure, “The average team on the ground with a vehicle can inspect five to seven gas well heads a day. On our first day using the ScanEagle we covered 50, and we’re now offering around 70 a day.”
That’s a huge leap in productivity for teams who now travel only to wells that the ScanEagle identifies as requiring maintenance. And as Smith pointed out in a presentation at LNG18 in Perth earlier this year, “…this was not a simple process. Insitu Pacific needed to work closely with QGC to navigate the process of receiving Civil Aviation Safety Authority approvals that enabled the drones to be used permanently in QGC operations.”
Keeping UAV flight operations within bounds
“At this point in time we have a block of airspace with CASA that’s about a 50km by 50km area,” says Andrew Duggan. “It’s probably the largest piece of airspace that CASA has ever released for UAVs in Australia, and we have the approval to fly in that airspace for 12 months. It’s based on some very careful work we’ve done around integrating safely with other airspace users, and we’re in discussions with CASA now to make that a much bigger area.”
Among the objectives of introducing BVLOS to gas site inspections is to “reduce inconvenience to landowners by cutting the number of land-access requests, and the cost to QGC associated with regular on-the-ground visual inspections,” says Smith, who adds that “QGC has a comprehensive stakeholder-management plan in place to mitigate risks associated with community privacy and maximise efficiency opportunities.” Duggan says landholders will rarely be aware of the drone’s as-the-crow-flies forays to well and pipeline positions: “At the altitude we’re flying, they shouldn’t see it or hear it. It’s far less disruptive than low-flying aircraft.”
QGC and Insitu Pacific are hopeful of gaining approval to operate over QGC’s entire mining lease, which Duggan describes as “an area almost the size of Great Britain”. Their collaboration is constantly evolving as the gathered data reveals more of what the Eagle eye can detect, and as they explore the potential to use different light spectrums for different inspection purposes.
One eagle, three handlers and a three-day growth
At the moment the data gathered by the one deployed ScanEagle (Insitu Pacific keeps two others on standby) is visual, and the Insitu team of three rostered technicians analyses the gathered video for anomalies and problems—vegetation encroaching on wells or pipeline, subsidence caused by rain, or a gauge raising a red flag. “We can’t see gauges that are the size of the palm of your hand but many of these gauges are much larger than that, with a handle that’s 10 or 12 centimetres long, and you can see whether it’s up or down or left or right.”
Analysing the heat spectrum with UAV-borne infrared sensors would allow checking of fluid levels and detection of gas leaks. “Looking at a tank from the outside with a normal camera, it just looks like a steel tank, but if you look at it with an infrared camera, the heat differential of where the fluid is in the tank shows a level on the side,” explains Duggan. Insitu Pacific is working with QGC to test the application of a particular part of the infrared spectrum that can be very finely tuned to detect methane, and therefore leaking methane.
Several weeks into its formal contract with QGC, Insitu Pacific is working every value-adding angle, and rapidly closing in on the aim of providing the gas miner with nothing but a maintenance task order. That is, having analysed the data collected by the ScanEagle, it will relay a maintenance or repair task list to tablet devices carried by crews mobilised in vehicles or aircraft. The task list will also allow service technicians to consistently take exactly the tools and parts required to carry out those tasks—reducing costly return visits.
“The most important challenge we face today is to reduce costs and increase the efficiency of our operations,” says Smith. “And only then, once we are successful, will we be able to maintain our licence to operate and attract the capital to create a truly successful industry.”
Five eagles, one handler and ease of operations
Now imagine one operator can fly several ScanEagles at once and use the same software architecture to drive and analyse data from other unmanned vehicles. Insitu is in the final stages of redeveloping an open-architecture software platform, called ICOMC2, which will hugely simplify the operation of automated vehicles on land, in the water and in the air.
A single operator can already direct multiple vehicles, but the flexibility offered by ICOMC2 will be in supplying device manufacturers and developers with a common set of software interfaces to drive any variety of vehicles, devices and analyses. The implication for training operators who could then easily work across any ICOMC2-based system, and for understanding analytics from those systems, is not only time saving, but enabling of a more versatile workforce in the rapidly expanding world of unmanned operations.
Duggan initially sees great potential for efficiencies and more rapid innovation in the resources sector. He says, “Companies like BHP and Rio are already working with autonomous trucks and autonomous mining equipment; we’re working closely with them in the application of autonomous aircraft. If I want to control multiple autonomous vehicles at my mine site, I really need a common set of control software that’s easy for my users to operate. So you might start out with a plug-in for the UAVs, and you might write a plug-in for the trucks, and ICOMC2 becomes a backbone for all your autonomous applications.”
Devices operating on a common platform can more easily be integrated, their data cross-referenced in time-critical situations. Duggan gives the example of an oil spill in which the operations of unmanned surface, subsea and aerial vehicles could coordinate to quickly assess and analyse the extent of spill and inform a rapid response.
The move to open platforms resonates at GE, where Predix is becoming a common platform used by developers to drive efficiencies in the industrial arenas of manufacturing; power generation, distribution and consumption; water treatment; jet engine reliability and so on.
As Shell’s Andrew Smith said at LNG18 this year, “We must put collaboration ahead of our industry’s natural desire to immortalise our own activities in concrete and steel.” Common platforms, open systems, and sharing the building blocks of development are freeing industry of costly duplicated efforts. Safely released from drone work and double-ups, innovation might more rapidly evolve beyond slogan and rhetoric.