On the high seas: How drones can make oil rig work a safer occupation

16th March 2023
Harry Fowle

Deploying drones in the oil and gas industry brings out huge savings and improved worker conditions, which in turn can drive growth and innovation, writes Dr. Shaun Passley, Founder of Zenadrone.

The development of unmanned systems, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, has significantly affected how businesses and industries operate. With their definite capabilities to function in absurd conditions, drones have proven crucial in lowering unnecessary injuries and fatalities.

The increase in UAV demand demonstrates how they ensure and uphold safety standards within various commercial and industrial applications, particularly in the oil and gas sector. They have enabled surveillance, inspection, and monitoring activities more efficiently, safely, and cost-effectively. Hence, various corporations invest in drones as a critical opportunity in several organisations.

The most common hazards on board an oil rig

Working in the offshore oil industry comes with health and safety risks. Sometimes, fatalities happen because of many factors. The most common hazards on board an oil rig, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are the following:

Vehicle collisions

Transporting people and equipment to and from well locations is necessary. Wells are frequently situated in remote areas, requiring extensive travel to reach the sites. Highway traffic accidents cause the most fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers. According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Industries, four out of every ten workers died while working in this industry due to a highway vehicle accident.

Got struck by or caught-in/between

In the oil and gas extraction business, struck-by, caught-in, and caught-between dangers account for three out of every five on-site fatalities (OSHA IMIS Database).

Fires and explosions 

The ignition of combustible vapours or gases poses a fire and explosion risk to anyone in the oil and gas industry. Flammable gases can be emitted from wells, trucks, production equipment, or surface equipment like tanks and shale shakers. Examples include well gases, vapours, and hydrogen sulphide. Examples of ignition sources are static, electrical energy sources, open flames, lightning, cigarettes, cutting and welding equipment, hot surfaces, and frictional heat.

Accidental falls

Workers might need to use equipment and platforms elevated far above the ground. OSHA mandates fall protection to avoid falls from the mast, drilling platform, and other tall equipment.

Confined spaces

Workers frequently have to enter tight places like mud pits, reserve pits, and other excavated locations. They also frequently must access tight spaces near wellheads. A restricted space's safety risks include the ignition of combustible vapours or gasses. Asphyxiation and exposure to dangerous substances are both health risks. Confined spaces designated as permit-required confined spaces, tested before access, and continuously monitored must comprise or have the likelihood to contain a significant atmospheric hazard.

Ergonomic hazards

Employees in the oil and gas industry may be at risk for work-related injuries due to repetitively executing the same or similar duties -- bending, reaching upwards, pushing, and dragging large weights. By interventions including pre-task planning, use of the appropriate tools, positioning of materials, education of employees about the risk, and early observation and reporting of injury signs and symptoms, risk factors and the associated injuries can be reduced or, in many cases, eliminated.

How drones make rig inspections safer and more efficient

Reduce human exposure to hazardous conditions

Several companies subject their staff to dangerous situations because of the nature of what they do. If not handled appropriately, this can lead to harm or loss of life. Here, drones change the game. With their high-definition camera and multi-spectral and thermal sensors, drones can inspect every inch of a rig in minutes and safely.

Reach dangerous and hard-to-reach places

These unmanned vehicles travel far as well as high. Also, they can access remote locations that are nearly inaccessible to humans.

Firefighters, for instance, face a significant danger of harm or death from wild animals and fire during wildfires. Drones can survey the region and map the least treacherous path for firefighters to take control of the situation in such circumstances. Drones can also be loaded with fire retardants to put out the fire safely.

Disaster response

Disaster response aims to save as many lives as possible while posing the fewest risks to the responders. Drones can survey disaster-affected areas from a vantage point where humans would be at serious risk. Advanced drones with imaging equipment can locate trapped or floating victims hidden from first responders. Drones can also map out the most secure paths to a population to deliver relief, lessen casualties, and find as many survivors as possible.

Monitor construction progress

The ability of those in the construction sector to learn in-depth details about their entire job site is constrained. In addition to being time-consuming, project monitoring carries workplace concerns. Drones for construction can speed up the process and make monitoring and reporting safer. These UAVs can enter challenging and risky environments with essentially little risk.

Survey power lines

Power line maintenance and inspection involve a lot of risks. Drones can be utilised for the inspection part of these processes, hence preventing high costs and saving lives.

Provide instant feedback

Drones use ultrasonic radars and laser sensor equipment to identify anomalies and produce three-dimensional images. Engineers and contractors can quickly obtain real-time information using UAV technology without endangering the safety of any workers.

Manage large-structure maintenance

The enormous structures that make up the towering oil rigs pose ongoing problems that require continual upkeep and supervision. It is perilous to send someone to climb a rig's face or cross a cable bridge to conduct an inspection. Drones are the appropriate tools to monitor and identify unanticipated emergencies in such a circumstance constantly.

Impact of drone usage on maintenance costs

Oil and gas industries are significantly reducing worker dangers by utilising drone technology. Also, according to industry data, using UAVs for inspections can result in up to a 33% boost in efficiency and a 50% decrease in inspection expenses.

The potential of UAVs to quickly and securely complete inspection-related tasks that often take many hours and put workers at significant personal risk has driven oil and gas suppliers to start deploying drones.

For instance, drones can perform inspections of dangerous oil refinery production equipment, chimneys, smokestacks, jetties, storage tanks, and other potentially risky sites without human intervention.

Drones can do close-up using high-tech visual inspection tools, such as infrared cameras, thermal imaging technology, and ultrasonic sensors. It allows non-disturbing inspections of oil and gas assets to check for structural flaws, system weaknesses, or potentially dangerous circumstances.

This technology has proven to be very successful in determining the state of storage tanks, tanker ships, and oil and gas pipelines' outer surfaces and subsurfaces.

Companies may now evaluate the present status of these products and predict the risk of breakdowns or leaks by integrating information obtained from drones with advanced data processing techniques.

How improved safety measures can make this occupation more attractive

A strong safety culture is essential to preventing workplace accidents and injuries. The upper management should set an example and set the tone first. Workers must feel safe speaking up about safety issues without worrying about punishment. They should also know management's dedication to maintaining their well-being and security.

The organisation's structure should reflect the safety culture, from how work is done on the front lines to how decisions are made at the top. It should not be an afterthought but an essential component of the organisation's strategy.

A robust safety culture necessitates constant training and communication. Keeping workers informed of any modifications to procedures and policies is essential. Students must also understand how to report harmful circumstances or actions.

In closing, using drones has become so typical that it is part of the modern lifestyle – whether as a recreational device or for a business function. Drones have proven beneficial in the oil and gas industry, where the nature of work is hazardous.

Drones reduce the risks that oil rig workers are exposed to daily. Several companies are following suit, realising drones' efficiency and effectiveness in the oil and gas trade.

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