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Beyond Visual Line of Sight Inspections Are Not an Urban Myth

Today, long-range asset inspections are performed using a mix of Unmanned Vehicles (UVs), helicopters, robotics and on-foot. UVs, or drones, are quickly proving to be a more efficient and cost-effective method of inspection. It makes sense. Oil and gas operations are infrastructure heavy and spread out over vast areas. They require humans to inspect hard-to-reach areas, often in hazardous locations and harsh climates, and pinpoint potentially critical anomalies. It’s no easy task for any human. It’s no surprise, then, that oil and gas companies are actually at the forefront of drone adoption.  

Digital by design, drones quickly capture a large volume of data, enabling an oil and gas inspector to detect irregularities like ground depressions and oil leaks before they become critical issues. Further, drones reduce risk. Flare stacks that are several hundred feet high with temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit can be inspected in detail without putting a human in harm’s way. Drone inspections are not only a logical application for the industry, but a necessary economic one. From corrosion management to pipeline right-of-way, asset integrity, environmental monitoring, and compliance maintenance, drones help oil and gas companies minimize risk, and increase asset reliability and availability, all reliably and at a low cost.

Advanced Operations: Magnify the Benefits of a Drone Inspection Program

Many petroleum organizations have transitioned to a drone inspection program and are receiving a solid return on their investment.  But a much greater cost and risk reduction can still be achieved. A drone program is only part of the benefit equation.

The real value of a drone program is in Advanced Operations, like Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and Multi-vehicle operations. Advanced Operations provide new functionality and capabilities, magnify cost savings and risk reductions, and give operators the ability to scale their inspection programs.

Take pipeline inspections, for example. In general, each refined oil pipeline may go through some 26 patrols annually to meet legal requirements. In some cases, (in dense vegetation or highly populated areas where there is a potential for greater environmental or human impact) the required frequency of patrols is much greater.

There are benefits to even more frequent inspections as well, including lower insurance rates, greater visibility to assets and less downtime. However, pipeline patrol is challenging. Inspectors are required to fly drone operations within the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS). On a clear day, with no visual impediment, the average human can see approximately 3.1 miles before the earth’s surface curves far enough that an observer loses line of sight.

In theory, a pipeline inspector with no visual impairment could then reasonably inspect 3.1 miles of pipeline using a Part 107 waiver that allows them to fly within the visual line of sight. But then reality kicks in. To maintain situational awareness, the operation can safely project out only 1.5 miles from the location of the operator. That distance, however, is only executable in circumstances where the terrain is flat and the land barren of trees and other vegetation. Needless to say, this is not a frequent situation. In addition, an inspector doing a multi-point patrol is required to fly multiple inspections daily, each strung together by repeated bouts of recharging the drone, moving the ground station, gaining access to property, and sometimes struggling through harsh terrain.

Even given the difficulty of gathering actionable data within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) conditions, drones still significantly reduce cost, risk and the time needed to perform inspections. The performance of an infrastructure inspection and maintenance program, however, can be elevated further through the implementation of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations.

BVLOS Is Not an Urban Myth. BVLOS Waivers Are Being Obtained Today.

A BLVOS waiver from the FAA is highly sought after and many believe difficult to get approved.
It’s as though it’s becoming an urban myth, fictional, but believed to be true. In reality, it is a highly complex operation that requires very detailed safety and risk assessment and testing along with top-notch equipment. Safety is paramount with aviation operations, and advanced drone operations are no different, except with BVLOS, ensuring safety becomes even more arduous.

As of November 2018, the FAA had issued 2,223 Part 107 waivers – yet only 1.17 percent were BVLOS waivers (with a few additional BVLOS exemptions that have been approved)1. Although the FAA and the industry have referred to these previously granted approvals as “BVLOS,” in fact all of these approvals required the use of a visual observer or a second pilot to visually scan the airspace to identify other aircraft that could create a collision hazard with the drone.

This ‘visual observer’ version of BVLOS is limited in its utility and cost scalability when it comes to inspections.

True BVLOS -- flying without a visual observer -- is not difficult to achieve if you have the right team and technology to implement it. In October 2018, AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation, developed the processes, procedures and training to obtain FAA approval to fly an unmanned aerial system BVLOS for Avitas Systems, a GE Venture, in a 22.5-square-mile area in Loving County Texas, owned by the Shell Oil Company.

The permission authorizes Avitas Systems to fly an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) over 55 pounds at low altitudes without a visual observer for industrial inspection. This is the nation’s first FAA-approved civil use of BVLOS with radar.

This represents true BVLOS capability at its best. Leveraging decades of GE Aviation safety expertise and a proven history of drone flight ops, AiRXOS accelerated the process for obtaining FAA civil use approval for BVLOS operations. AiRXOS worked with ground-based radar and vehicle providers and operators to develop a BVLOS safety-case, prepared a successful waiver application, and gained operational approval from the FAA.

While the industry may believe BVLOS is still in the future, AiRXOS is already obtaining these waivers for oil & gas customers.

In the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz film ”Knight and Day,” Cruise tells Diaz, “You can either go it alone or go it with me.” He emphasizes the point – puts his hand on the lower end of an imaginary vertical scale and says, “without me” – and then moves his hand up the scale and says, “with me.” Without me, you’re only at the starting level, but with me you’re at a dramatically higher level with greater benefits.

The same is true with advanced operations and BVLOS. While Oil and Gas VLOS drone inspection programs provide clear cost and safety savings compared to helicopter inspections, there is still even greater opportunity to multiply the cost and risk reductions through BVLOS. BLVOS is not urban myth; it is obtainable, and if your drone inspection program is not already investigating how to apply for and use BVLOS today, you could be missing out on substantial savings.

1 Federal Aviation Administration, Part 107 Waiver Granted, November 13, 2018.

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