Drone company claims first legal Gulf of Mexico inspection flights
A company that conducts inspections of oil and gas facilities using drones says it’s the first to launch legal operations out in the Gulf of Mexico.
London-based Sky Futures, which opened an office in Houston in 2015, said that last week the company flew its drones on inspections of an oil platform, a helicopter deck and four cranes on a drillship. Sky Futures did not name which oil company contracted them to perform the inspection.
Oil rig inspections are dangerous and expensive work, involving workers hanging from the bottom of an oil platform to visually log damages.
Increasingly, however, companies operating drones are moving in to this segment, and have been finding significant demand for their services. Sky Futures Vice President of Operations Jay Forte said the downturn in the oil prices that has hammered offshore producers has been a huge boon to the business, as companies seek to cut down on costs without compromising safety.
Drones have helped these companies accomplish that goal. Forte said some Gulf producers may already have been using drones for years to conduct limited inspections of their equipment, but that those “flyarounds” were likely oil platform workers using their personal drones for the task without explicit approval from federal regulators. The Federal Aviation Administration first began issuing exemptions for commercial drone operators in September 2014.
Sky Futures grew its business in the North Sea for years before getting approval by the Federal Aviation Administration in March 2015 to operate in the United States. According to the date of the FAA’s exemption, Sky Futures was among the first companies to get approval to start flying drones for commercial activities in the U.S.
According to a Bloomberg report from 2015, Sky Futures already counts many of the biggest operators in the North Sea — BP, Shell, Apache, BG Group and Statoil — among its clients.
A few other Houston companies serving the oil and gas industry also received FAA approvals for drone flights in the last year:
- Total Safety, an international oil and gas facility inspection company, got approval for drone flights in July 2015.
- Trumbull Unmanned, another Houston drone company, also got FAA approval for drone flights in April 2015. Trumbull’s website says the company serves international offshore oil and gas operations, but doesn’t mention the Gulf of Mexico.
There are now more than 3,000 businesses or individuals in the U.S. with approval to fly drones for commercial reasons, according to the FAA’s database on exemptions. At least 994 of those exemptions went to applicants performing various types of inspections: electric transmission lines, solar power installations, chemical plants, commercial and residential real estate and farms, as well as oil and gas equipment and a host of other facilities.
A few major energy companies also received exemptions, among them Chevron, Marathon Petroleum, NextEra Energy and Duke Energy. Most have listed safety inspections of oil and gas facilities and power infrastructure as reasons for new drone launches.
Watch video below taken by a Sky Futures drone of the underside of an oil platform in the North Sea.