By Krithika Krishnamurthy
(Reuters) - No pilot was required when the Aeryon Scout took off into the leaden skies of Alaska to inspect a stretch of oil pipeline. The miniature aircraft was guided by an engineer on the ground, armed only with a tablet computer.
The 20-minute test flight, conducted by BP Plc last fall, was a glimpse of a future where oil and gas companies in the Arctic can rely on unmanned aircraft to detect pipeline faults, at a fraction of the cost of piloted helicopter flights.
It could become reality as soon as 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opens up American skies for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, popularly known as drones.
While technical shortcomings and strict regulation are likely to limit the use of drones in the near term, the rules governing public airspace will be more relaxed in the wilderness of Alaska than in the lower 48 states, industry experts say.
"We're going to take baby steps," said Gary Shane, a consultant who works as a senior project manager for BP Pipelines in North America. The company plans to deploy its first drones in the Alaska North Slope within three years, he told Reuters.
Laid end to end, the more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that crisscross the United States would circumnavigate the planet 12 times. There's a lot of money to be saved by reducing the number of manned flights on these routes.
A small, unmanned vehicle fitted with a heat-sensing camera costs about $85,000, while it costs about $3,000 to send a helicopter to monitor an oil pipeline for an hour, said Dave Kroetsch, chief executive of drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs Inc.
The drone, therefore, would pay for itself within 29 hours.
BP began researching the use of unmanned aircraft in 2006. Royal Dutch Shell Plc began a year earlier. One aim, says Shell, is to track the movement of marine mammals to assess the impact of the company's operations in the seas off Alaska.
The Scout is the flagship product of Aeryon Labs, a private Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario - the same university town that gave rise to BlackBerry.
Under a meter in length, the Scout weighs 1.2 kg (2.7 lbs) - tiny when compared with the 1,020-kg MQ-1 Predator drone used by the U.S. military and manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics.
Aeryon Labs calls the Scout a "flying robotic reconnaissance system". It has been used by Gaddafi-era Libyan rebels and seen action in a Central American drugs bust. (http://r.reuters.com/zec68t)
A camera mounted on the drone transmits a live feed to the operator. In the case of pipeline work, sensors can pinpoint the location of a suspected leak and detect signs of decay, such as cracks or rust, said Ian McDonald, Aeryon Labs' vice-president.
With four rotors and legs allowing for vertical take-off and landing, the Scout can also hover closer to a pipeline than any helicopter could. Proponents of the technology say this will help oil companies to find defects earlier than they can now.
According to a U.S. government report on pipeline safety, the public was quicker to report pipeline leaks than companies' in-house detection systems in a third of cases recorded between January 2010 and July 2012. (http://link.reuters.com/wyk48t)
SHORT FLIGHTS ONLY
So with all these advantages, why aren't more oil companies signing up? Why do Canada's two biggest pipeline operators, Enbridge Inc and TransCanada Corp, prefer traditional methods for inspecting their U.S. pipeline routes?
Technology, for one thing. Drones might not be new - BP also used the Aeryon Scout to help direct clean-up crews after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 - but they are yet to be proven for large-scale commercial use.
"We have looked at this in detail, but advanced drone technology is largely proprietary to the U.S. military," said Enbridge spokesman Graham White.
"Our experience is that there is still no substitute for human eyes, knowledge and expertise when inspecting the lines."
The 20 minutes flown by the Aeryon Scout is about the most that a small drone can manage. The sophisticated sensor systems needed for inspection are too big for longer flights; "miniaturizing" these sensors will take time, said BP's Shane.
Also missing from today's fleet of drones is the collision avoidance technology that automatically instructs an aircraft to take evasive action if an obstacle appears in its path.
While doubts persist, some oil majors are on the sidelines. ConocoPhillips said it was interested, but that it did not operate its own aerial surveillance program. Exxon Mobil Corp declined to comment for this article.
David Yoel, chief executive of industry consultants Aerospace Advisors Inc, said it would be at least 10 years before unmanned aircraft are in common use along U.S. pipelines.
Draganfly Innovations Inc, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based manufacturer that sold several drones to deepwater oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, said industry-wide sales had begun to flag, due largely to the regulatory environment.
"Actual sales have definitely slowed, especially in the U.S., because of people's issues with the FAA regulations," said Kevin Lauscher, Draganfly's industrial sales manager.
INTO THE WILDERNESS
Current U.S. federal law permits only public agencies and universities to fly drones in public airspace. BP teamed up with the University of Alaska Fairbanks when it tested the Scout.
This should change from September 2015, by which time the FAA is mandated by Congress to have drawn up rules for their commercial use.
Even public agencies today must operate drones under strict regulations, and these restrictions will not disappear overnight for commercial users, industry experts say.
Such rules - drones must fly in daylight hours only, for example, within the remote operator's line of sight and more than five miles from any airport, big or small - are hardly conducive to monitoring a vast pipeline network.
Gretchen West, executive vice-president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said she believed that drones would become "an important technology" for oil and gas companies. "(But) it's still going to be several years before it's not heavily regulated."
Alaska just might be the exception.
It's very remoteness could win it special dispensation that would permit drones to be operated round-the-clock and controlled from beyond the line of sight.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 - the existing law that stipulates the September 2015 deadline for commercial drone use - saves a separate mention for the Arctic.
"The FAA is working ... to integrate unmanned aircraft into the Arctic region, where potential uses include wildlife observation, oil and mineral exploration, sea ice studies and pipeline monitoring," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
The FAA estimates that about 7,500 commercial "small unmanned systems" - drones weighing up to 55 lb (25 kg) - will be in operation within five years of its opening up the skies.
For companies such as Aeryon Labs and Draganfly, the challenge will be to develop the technology to drive more sales.
"Manufacturers and start-ups see that there will be great potential," said West. "This is going to be a great industry."
(Editing by Robin Paxton)
(This story corrects paragraph 5 to show Gary Shane is a consultant to BP, not an executive)