Unmanned aircraft like drones have created a number of opportunities in the oil and gas industry as organizations realize what kind of an impact these tools can have around key concerns like safety and efficiency. Various oil and gas companies are looking to incorporate UAVs into their operation one way or another, but challenges associated with that endeavor are often related to the people involved as much as the process.

Todd Chase

Todd Chase

Todd Chase is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Manager for Oceaneering, a global oilfield provider of engineered services and products primarily serving the offshore oil and gas industry. He is responsible for developing and integrating UAS throughout Oceaneering’s global network of asset inspection and data management services, and has some critical insights around how drones are and are not most appropriately being utilized in this industry.

He presented some of those insights and experiences at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL event, and I thought it would be great to follow up with him around some of the things he talked through in that session. We discussed his transition into the oil and gas industry, what sort of standards and practices have been established, whether or not oil and gas companies are looking to hire drone service providers or establish their own in-house operations and plenty more.


Jeremiah Karpowicz: You retired from the military a few years ago and have transitioned into a career that focuses on how drones can be used in the oil and gas industry. What was one of the biggest surprises you experienced with that transition?

Todd Chase: The biggest surprise was around the very methodical approach this industry as a whole seems to take when it comes to embracing new technology. They’re a bit more hesitant than I imagined they would be in this regard, which was unexpected to me since much of this technology is something we’ve been using in the military for years now.

I understand where they’re coming from though. They’re very entrenched in the proven safety processes, which of course isn’t a bad thing. They want to stick with tools and processes that they know will work, and when the stakes are as high as they are for many of these organizations, this approach is understandable.


No doubt, but then it’s a question of how much their process will be impacted by these tools. Have you seen UAS change the approaches that have traditionally been taken in oil and gas data collection?

In many cases drones are refining and augmenting something these people were already doing. I would be hesitant to overemphasize what’s happening in the industry or use terms like “revolutionize”, but this technology enhances certain tasks and can eliminate the human footprint in a dangerous area to some extent, or minimizes exposure to risk.

In the conversations we’re having, oil and gas companies are looking for a few things. First and foremost, whatever you’re doing has to be safe. It also has to make sense economically, so there has to be a cost benefit. And then it has to be effective. Is it as good or better as the data they’re getting? It’s an ideal tool when it can hit all three of those for an organization.


Have you seen many companies push to bring UAS services in-house? Or is there a preference to bringing in qualified service providers?

We’re definitely seeing both. You see some organizations reaching out to service providers in certain sectors where there’s elevated risk, such as offshore oil and gas, and in refineries where there’s a lot of processing. Then you also have to consider the recommended requirements and industry guidance for the use of UAS, so it takes some time to get that experience and knowledge. Developing a UAS program to meet industry requirements and complete in a rapidly changing technology environment can be a major commitment of resources. This results in some situations where larger companies are just subcontracting that out.

On the other hand, what they’re also realizing is that the really important thing here is the data. They know they’ll have much greater control over the data if they’re using an in-house team, which can be a major factor as these decisions are weighed out. There’s always some back and forth when you’re looking at the efficiencies of developing your own programs versus subcontracting, and the most efficient way to collect, process and archive that data is a huge consideration.


What sort of factors are being considered as oil and gas companies look into building their own UAS programs or outsourcing?

Most of these companies realize they can build a program when necessary, but I think a challenge that a lot of them face is around how much of an investment they want to make to that kind of program when the technology and software changes so rapidly. A company that looks at subcontracting these services can, to an extent, ensure they’re getting the latest and greatest technology and safety systems, whereas internal programs typically will be challenged to keep pace with dynamic industry developments. That kind of “latest and greatest” service can be an important part of what these 3rd party providers offer.

For all of these companies, it’s about figuring out what makes sense on a financial level. Most often they’re looking at this from a business case and will need their choice to be supported from that perspective.


You mentioned the recommended requirements and best practices for the use of UAS, so can you talk about what organizations are involved with creating these standards?

There are some industry organizations such as HSAC – Helicopter Safety Advisory Council – that have led the charge in this regard. We used them a lot when I was at BP. HSAC currently represents over 115 members, including major oil companies, drilling companies, helicopter operators, oil industry service companies, and helicopter makers.

Under HSAC, we put together a working aviation advisors group with most of the major and super major oil and gas companies and set out some guidelines and recommended best practices. In turn, those recommended practices have have been accepted by IOGP, the International Oil and Gas Producers, which is an organization that represents about 78 companies and over 1/3 of the world’s oil and gas production. We’re also seeing organizations like UK Oil and Gas are coming out with some very helpful guidelines that should be released here shortly.

I wouldn’t call what these organizations put together standards but more like guidelines or recommended practices. These are companies and organizations that came together to figure out how they’d be able to enable safety in a very real way. They were able to keep up with visual inspection criteria for things like gas detection, leak detection, etc. and explore how tools like drones can be safely incorporated in all of those processes.


Your presentation at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL was one the better ones I attended, as I found it to be both insightful and incredibly practical, which was highlighted when you mentioned how drones needed to be “fit for purpose”. Can you explain to our audience a little bit of what you meant by that?

There are so many variations of unmanned aircraft with a tremendous difference in capabilities and design. It is important to ensure the operation considers the most appropriate unmanned vehicle to safely execute the mission. The threshold to entry into the UAS market is low and not all of them can meet the demands and expectations of certain applications within the oil and gas industry. So much of it comes back to the approach UAS operators take in terms of what they can offer an oil and gas company around how they can capture and process data for their operation.

In certain operations and applications in oil and gas, the culture is such that even a bucket that goes overboard is a reportable object and can be scrutinized within high levels of a company, and even by regulatory agencies. That’s in addition to the safety considerations that have to be taken into account for all of the people involved on a project, so you want to make sure you’re using equipment that takes all of these things into account. There’s no inherently safe UAV, which is why it’s important to have redundancies in flight control and navigation systems, and features like responsive control systems and electromagnetic shielding from interference. Making the right equipment choice for this environment is essential, because it needs to serve a purpose that positively impacts safety, efficiency and the bottom line.

There are a lot of drone companies out there, and there’s not enough business for all of them to be successful. The companies that are seeing success have business models which are built for purpose in this industry in a very real way. That’s an easier road to travel than the companies that are just straight UAV service operators.


One of the more amusing parts of your session was that you almost titled it something along the lines of “I have my drone, now how do I get those oil and gas contracts?” Is that mentality one you encounter often?

I come across it in places you wouldn’t even believe. It’s actually quite common, and people with the right connections can get in front of key people at major organizations, even when all they’ve done is purchase a drone that isn’t even especially well suited to the service they offer to provide.

Obviously, those conversations typically don’t go anywhere helpful for either party. Right now the threshold to entry is so low to get into the UAV business that it can really be problematic.


Of course, as you discussed, the actual drone can often be the least important part of the operation. People, training, equipment, procedures and experience are things you mentioned as being of far more importance. How have you seen these elements come together on a project?

The last piece there is so important. Having that experience helps tremendously, and it’s hard to undervalue that point just because there’s so many possible hazards you can encounter in this industry. So many things that might not be discussed or briefed in a hazard identification meeting can happen once you’re out there, so that experience is key.


Of course, someone’s experience piece is greatly influenced and defined by the people, training, equipment and procedures they’re dealing with or that they’ve setup. So these things all feed into one another.

Knowing what the customers expect is an important part of this as well, because even as an experienced UAV expert in the military, I’ve encountered challenges when all of these pieces aren’t lining up. If you think you’re set just because you’ve got the right people involved or because you’ve laid out a specific procedure without considering those other pieces, you really need to take a step back and think everything through in a more deliberate manner.


How have you seen drones impact an operation in a real, tangible manner? 

I’ve definitely seen the results. I think what you’re seeing is an enhancement of data sets on the visual inspections. The UAS is not going to replace manpower in situations where repairs or "hands on" requirements exist, but the UAS will provide enhanced data sets compared to current data being collected.

With drones you can look at a flare tip without having to actually go up there and inspect or monitor it while it’s operating, which is something you couldn’t do with a guy on scaffolding, and may be more cost efficient than a helicopter. We’re seeing drones eliminate those sorts of limitations around how and when we can gather this essential data.


Above all else, what’s the one thing oil and gas companies are looking for when they’re trying to hire a drone service provider?

It really goes back to the technology being more effective, safer and able to create saving and efficiencies. Those are the three strategic points they’re always going to want to cover directly and indirectly.

Beyond that, you can get into the quality of the operator. The oil and gas companies are looking at drones in the same way they view manned operations, and that’s whether they’re considering hiring a service provider or bringing the capability in-house. It’s easy to understand that position, and it’s not one limited to this industry. The same airspace principles are inherent in manned aircraft just as they are in unmanned. You have to scale everything to the size of the risk and operation, but the same guiding principles can and should apply.