By Faiza Rizvi Rahman

We are finding new ways of using drones to help improve the safety, efficiency, and environmental performance of our operations.

Flying High: How Drones are Optimizing Aramco’s Operations

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, offer a unique combination of mobility, data capture capabilities, and precision, making them an invaluable tool across a multitude of sectors. Whether it’s the construction sector, which uses drones to survey and map land, the agriculture sector which deploys drones to plant seeds and spray fertilizers; or the security industry, where they are used for surveillance of large areas, drones have become increasingly popular and versatile across industries in recent years.

And the energy sector is no exception. Drones are adding value to a wide range of operations from pipeline inspections to environmental monitoring within the energy and chemicals business by performing tasks that are difficult, dangerous, or costly for humans.

Our Drones Take Flight

At Aramco, we began deploying drones in 2015 mainly for inspection across seven facilities. Over the years, in line with our mission to deploy breakthrough technologies to accelerate our business performance, we have continued to expand drone deployment. We are now deploying over 100 drones across most of our major facilities.

While being crucial for the inspection and maintenance of our onshore and offshore sites, storage tanks, and power system infrastructure, drones are also supporting a wide range of our field operations like emergency response, security surveillance, aerial mapping, and environmental monitoring.

“The advent of drones in the oil and gas industry is a game-changer. Deploying industry-leading robotics and drone applications across Aramco’s business is driving safer, cost-effective, and more efficient practices.”

Khalid Y. Al-Qahtani, Aramco’s senior vice president of Engineering Services

Inspection and Monitoring

Traditional asset inspections in the oil and gas sector can involve manual labor, scaffolding, and costly downtime. Inspections can also be hazardous, particularly when the sites are remote or an emergency can mean there’s a requirement to work at night.

At Aramco, we are deploying drones as a quick and cost-effective way to inspect and monitor our oil and gas assets, reducing the need for manual inspections, which can be both dangerous and time-consuming.

Flying High: How Drones are Optimizing Aramco’s Operations
A vertical takeoff and landing drone.

When we use drones to inspect a tank, for example, we don’t need to erect and later dismantle scaffolding. This saves time and reduces risk, as maintenance staff are not required to work at high elevations or in confined spaces.

Another benefit is that facilities such as flare stacks do not have to be shut down for inspections. Instead, a drone collects high-resolution thermal images while the flare stack is operating, checking for deformations, cracks, corrosion, and physical deterioration.

Recent advancement in our drone deployment includes nondestructive testing, which involves collecting data about a specific material without damaging it. Our inspection department deploys ultrasonic testing drones that use high-frequency soundwaves to detect flaws, defects, or corrosion that may affect the performance and safety of industrial assets and infrastructure.

For inspection, we are using a special class of drones — the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone, which is capable of flying continuously for several hours without the need for a runway during takeoff and landing operations, making it ideal for well monitoring, especially at our giant fields where wells are spread over large areas.

This class of drones is also being used for pipeline surveillance and monitoring.

Minimizing Environmental Impact

Drones provide a unique bird’s eye view for their operators. With their ability to cover large amounts of land quickly, cost-effectively, and with precision, drones are playing a key role in monitoring our facilities for potential leaks.

We deploy drones fitted with thermal gas imaging to survey thousands of points across our facilities to monitor and measure potential methane leaks. They are also equipped with laser absorption spectrometry — a technology that can ascertain the scale of a leak and determine the concentration of specific gases.

At the Khurais, Abu Jifan, and Mazalij oil fields, which together cover 8,000 km2 of surface area, with more than 5,000 km of pipelines, and nearly 900 producing and injection wellheads, drones are playing an important role in round-the-clock, systematic inspection and maintenance of engineered components.

Flying High: How Drones are Optimizing Aramco’s Operations
Arial view of the Khurais oil facility.

Drones continuously hover over the vast assortment of pipes, gauges, valves, and flanges that are spread over thousands of kilometers to detect potential leaks and other issues related to the field’s extensive production infrastructure. And they do so with precision and in far less time compared to manual inspections.

To put things in perspective, if we carried out inspections manually, two field operators in a car would take about an hour to check two wells. Using drones, we can now check 70 wells in four hours.

Another way in which we are using drones for environmental protection is by planting trees. We have piloted drone technology for planting native trees and monitoring the growth of mangroves.

Drone planting technology is approximately 10 times faster than the traditional planting method, and can potentially plant thousands of trees per day by dispersing nutrient-rich seed balls across large areas. In our pilot project, we planted 100,000 native trees using drones and achieved a plantation success rate exceeding 88 percent.

Unlocking Potential

Today, we are experiencing numerous benefits of expanding drone deployment in our operations.

By using drones and wearable technologies to inspect pipelines and machinery, the 'Uthmaniyah Gas Plant (UGP), for example, cut inspection times by 90%.

At our Abqaiq Plants facility, robots and drones perform almost a third of routine operations, such as safety inspections. Through the use of drones alongside other 4IR solutions, the facility increased its power generation potential by 4.5% and reduced its by 31.8% between 2019 and 2022.

We are also deploying 3D modeling drone scanning devices for construction operations across our major projects. Using drones, we measure and analyze the topography of construction sites and then, create operational plans based on the topography data. This has shortened the process of surveying, earthwork volume calculation, and construction planning from several months to just a day or two.

With the full potential of drones yet to be unlocked, we aim to continue looking for new drone technologies, studying potential benefits of drone deployment to deliver increased operational efficiency and workplace safety, as well as to further reduce the carbon emissions of our operations.

— The Arabian Sun: April 28, 2024