Drones instrumental in storm inspections

Drone developments including sense and avoid technology, algorithms to analyse machine learning, automated flight patterns, and weather proofing are allowing petrochemical and energy project teams to inspect complexes faster and safer after major storm events, experts told Petrochemical Update.

Drones are used in inspection offshore, at refineries and in chemical plants and able to look for leaks, heat loss, infrared loss, as well as provide inspection photo and video data. Image: AIRX3.

With a skeleton crew available during the Hurricane Harvey storms in Texas, Drone Systems International (DSI) assisted Shell’s Deer Park facility with aerial inspections.

“A lot of people were flooded and could not get to work. Our company and the Shell Drone Aerial Response Team  (D.A.R.T.) was tasked with flying over and inspecting the floating rooftop tanks,” said Jeff Yuna, President of DSI.

“A big concern was to look for floating roof storage tanks that were not draining. These roof tanks are built to withstand rain, but too much rain accumulation could cause them to sink and expose hydrocarbons into the air,” Yuna added.

Storm impact

Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 25. It then went on to dump record quantities of rain and push wind gusts over 40 miles per hour (mph) along the Texas Coast and into Louisiana before dissipating nine days later. 25 trillion gallons of water total spilled over the U.S. Gulf Coast region, causing an estimated $190 billion in damage.

Shell along with other plants along the U.S. Gulf Coast shut down as the storm approached. Prior to restarting the petrochemical complex, several inspections had to be made. Inspections that humans could not get to in heavy rain and wind while operating on a skeleton staff.

Given the limited Shell personnel on-site during Harvey, DSI says it was critical for the crew to identify any potential problems and prioritize emergency response.

“Drones enable detailed photos, video and save a lot of time. Someone does not have to climb high ladders. There is a safety benefit to utilizing a drone program,” Yuna said. “Drones also notice things and can identify areas to address that no one can see from ground level.”

Storm drones

The primary drone typically used in petrochemical inspections at Shell is Inspire1, Yuna said. But this drone was not used during Hurricane Harvey.

“The amount of rain from Harvey would have killed it. We modified the DJI Phantom 4s to fly during the storm,” Yuna said.

These drones flew a total of 39 missions from August 26-28 to collect 18.8 gigabytes (GB) of data. That equals 7.6 miles of flight over 141 minutes, Yuna said.

Because Shell’s petrochemical complex is on the port, it is governed by U.S. Coast Guard Regulations and federal law restricts sharing videos or photos collected there.

DSI also helped Shell obtain a federal waiver within hours to fly in the newly imposed temporary flight restriction over the entire Houston area.

Shell’s in-house Drone team

DSI trained 12 drone pilots at Shell Deer Park and implemented Shell’s in-house drone program D.A.R.T.(Drone Aerial Response Team), as well as created automated flight paths, a data catalog system, and a data security system.

Prior to D.A.R.T., Shell employees needed to climb the stairs to every tank, a process taking several days.

However, DSI and the Shell D.A.R.T. could inspect the tanks spread over 1,500 acres within hours, monitor tanks with suspected issues, and catalog other images of the refinery for damage assessment, Yuna said.

Image: Shell Deer Park, Texas

Improved technology

DSI’s Inspire was the more economical model in the beginning. Shell has now taken delivery of DSI’s Matrice 200 and 210, which are weather resistant to operate in rain and snowfall, and feature a 30x optical zoom camera capability.

Image: DSI

The M200 series also incorporate Flight hub capabilities allowing the pilot to stream the UAV's video feed a remote station real-time.

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone is a popular drone used in energy and chemical sectors, according to T.J.Whiskerd, Technical Director at AIRX3, a Swiss based drone inspection company.

The Falcon 8 is designed to provide consistent, stable flights in difficult environments such as poor GPS reception, high winds and magnetic field disturbances. 

“Intel has made good progress by applying Sense and Avoid technology, which allows a drone pilot to fly near to the infrastructure and avoid collision,” Whiskerd said. 

Whiskerd, a CAA qualified drone pilot in Switzerland who also provides consulting services for companies who want to implement a drone inspection service says Sense and Avoid linked with Machine Learning technology are changing the way drones are used for inspection processes of all kinds including chemicals and energy sectors. 

"In the near future, the drones and the support systems will be employed to automatically inspect and process massive amounts of inspection data that is supported by machine learning,” Whiskerd said. "The inspection routines will then become much more efficient. Findings can be categorized and reported into the company data base”

Whiskerd has worked on pipe line inspections using fixed wing drones and specially designed multi-rotor drones, as well the inspection of flare stacks at refineries and chemical plants using the Falcon 8.

Image: AIRX3

Image: AIRX3


The high costs of implementing an in-house drone team are also hard to get approved and more companies tend to rely on contractor drone companies for inspections, but then deal with availability issues in emergencies.

“If you are a major company and can afford to have a major team trained, then availability will not be a problem. 10 drone pilots and 10 drones scattered around the locations will cost a million dollars in equipment,” Whiskerd estimated.

By Heather Doyle