Refineries are one of those engineering feats where I can’t help but be in awe of their complexity, size, and ability to adapt over the years. The increased demand for crude oil, combined with the fact that new refineries aren’t being built in the US, means they are all running close to full capacity. This is great for business but comes with its own bag of issues when we’re talking about safety. Regularly running machines at full capacity is a delicate situation that makes regular oil and gas inspections all the more critical.
I’ve been working in leak detection for 5 years now, and it’s clear that things can go downhill fast when people are complacent, tired, or bored by tedious and detail-oriented jobs. Accidents will happen—whether due to human error, fatigue, or just plain having no idea that you are walking into a dangerous situation. We had a crew a few years back that regularly drove through gas leaks while trying to detect and reduce fugitive emissions using a handheld OGI camera. It wasn’t until we moved to autonomous drone inspection that we caught the leak.
The bottom line is that working at refineries is a risky business. The fatality rate in the oil and gas industry remains an average of seven times higher than among U.S. workers in general, according to a report by the CDC. There are a few main reasons why human inspections for O&G are often more dangerous than in other industries. The inspections need to cover difficult to reach spots where access is inconvenient, like the top of a tank. Any part of the refinery is a candidate for emissions that contain high levels of volatile organic compounds. More than once, when inspecting refineries,I’ve found myself in situations working at heights or exposed to corroded equipment.
Why autonomous monitoring of fugitive emissions works
Refineries are always looking for ways to boost employee safety and operational efficiency. But manual inspections, the most widely used method for monitoring operations and maintenance, are timely, costly, tough to do as often as needed—and still too reliant on the human factor.
With legacy inspection methods, employees still end up relatively close to potentially toxic and explosive materials and we’re stuck with the safety risks. Granted, using OGI cameras is a stellar leap forward from the old soap and bubbles, but employees are still exposed to too many safety hazards that come part and parcel with manual inspections. Even bringing in third-party pilots that use drones to conduct the inspection is still too dependent on the human factor. There may be different pilots conducting the inspections, which means there’s no consistency when it comes to the pilots’ skills, what is inspected, or the time of day and angles at which the data is collected.
Finding solutions that efficiently detect emissions and eliminate the dangers to employees has been a challenge—until now. Autonomous inspection is quickly becoming the go-to solution for Oil & Gas because it can integrate advanced cameras that collect high quality information on the condition of pipes, tanks, flares and more. A solution like Percepto’s drone-in-a-box (DIB) is outfitted with an optical gas imaging camera and autonomous inspection software. Here’s how it works. Percepto AIM software and DIB perform autonomous routine inspections of the refinery’s tanks, pipes, and other assets. The solution works to ensure proper operation and structural integrity by detecting anomalies before they turn into bigger issues. The automated drones provide regular operations and maintenance reports, map the location of the equipment, and perform the inspections. Each drone does exactly what is needed, at the same time of day and angle, for consistent reports that make comparisons and measurements easier.
An autonomous drone also allows for a much higher frequency of inspection. Because it can go out as often as you like, issues are detected before they become problems. When an anomaly is identified, we know the exact problem, and where it’s located. Even if emissions are detected, we can conduct the inspection remotely.
At the site where I’m working now, manual inspection with a handheld OGI camera was taking at least 30 to 40 minutes (and using a sniffer would be double that). Meanwhile, the autonomous drone went out on its mission and came back in 5 minutes!
It collects high-quality data during the inspection, uses powerful AI software to analyze the data, and then delivers the insights that let us take any actions needed. Nothing goes unnoticed so I know we can really depend on its reliability. Managing the data is also super easy. It’s automatically sorted by asset and data type. So when we want to find information about a specific tank for example, we can see all the RGB images, thermal images, videos, reports, and issues.
Routine, unmanned LDAR is the key to boosting refinery safety
My top perk is that these autonomous drones increase employee safety by making it easier to conduct frequent inspections while removing us from risky situations and preventing emergency downtime events. With this kind of solution, there’s no need for human involvement. You can run inspections whenever needed, safely, quickly, and consistently. The drone is on site, weatherproof, and always ready to go.
In short, it’s easy to be such a big fan of autonomous OGI inspection when it comes to safety.
- Automated inspections can be performed more often so failures are detected early on—preventing unscheduled shutdowns or accidents.
- Drones can easily navigate hazardous areas, so there’s no need to send in employees up on scaffolding or risk exposure to hazardous gasses.
- Drones can track and monitor emergencies to provide responders with real-time situational awareness, without putting anyone in harm’s way.
- And when repairs are needed, the OGI payload can point maintenance crews to the exact leak location, minimizing employee exposure during repairs.
In short, autonomous drone inspection is making my job safer and more efficient, while reducing costs. Being able to conduct more inspections as often as we like, in any weather or hazardous situation is allowing us to be safer while we cut down product loss, prevent downtime, and make compliance simpler. You can grab more info here, or watch how it works here.