Drone advances keeping up with offshore industry needs

Feb. 13, 2024
Offshore projects are ramping up for drone companies with unmanned systems that offer increased efficiency in aerial operations.

Editor's note: A condensed version of this article first appeared in the 2024 Remote Inspections & Operations Special Report, which published within the January/February 2024 issue of Offshore magazine.

By Ariana Hurtado, Editor and Director of Special Reports


Drones developers have released several innovative advancements over the past few years, as challenges and needs evolve to meet inspection, maintenance, repair and operations demands. The solutions that drones can provide for the offshore energy industries range from vessel inspections, logistics services and methane detection to cargo and equipment transfers.

Offshore aerial operations projects over just the last quarter of 2023 included:

  • MODEC and Terra Drone performing drone-based hull thickness measurement of a crude oil storage tank in two FPSOs offshore Brazil;
  • TotalEnergies signing agreements with Petrobras, SOCAR and Sonangol to jointly conduct methane detection and measurement campaigns on oil and gas facilities, which involves deployment on drones of the AUSEA gas analyzer; and
  • Ørsted deploying autonomous drones to transport cargo to offshore wind turbines, starting with the Hornsea 1 wind farm in the North Sea.

Drones must be able to exhibit agility, acceleration and maneuverability in high winds and harsh offshore conditions. They must also be able to resist the effects of salt buildup and corrosion for continuous operations in challenging ocean environments. In addition, for inspection purposes, drones need to be equipped with imaging systems and sensors to capture high-resolution images and gather data to assess the structural integrity of offshore assets.

Ship tank inspections

Another drones project that occured late last year was for G.S Marine Services, a company that needed a comprehensive visual inspection of the entire inner surface of a tank exceeding 10 m and faced time consumption and costs challenges as well as safety concerns. A Flybotix drone, equipped with a 4K camera and LED lighting, conducted thorough inspections of the cargo tanks (eliminating the need for costly scaffolding). Plus, the immediate streaming of high-quality images to the remote control center allowed real-time collaboration with surveyors.

Using Flybotix's ASIO drone, G.S Marine Services completed a visual inspection of the tank within 24 minutes, achieving a thorough assessment of the tank walls' condition and identifying potential issues. Flybotix said this inspection was significantly faster and cost-effective compared to traditional methods, reducing inspection time from several days. In addition, using the drone for visual inspection resulted in potential savings ranging from several thousand to more than $100,000, according to Flybotix. Staging costs, which could reach up to $195,000 for large ships, were reduced to $10,000 to $30,000 with the drone. Additionally, the company said elimination of drydock time and the ability to maintain the ship’s productivity during inspections added further value.

Flybotix drones also can be used to avoid risks for personnel during the inspection of offshore rigs. They also can be utilized to ensure a ship's integrity by inspecting ballast tanks while keeping track of any corrosion spots as well as to inspect storage and fuel tanks of ships to ensure their integrity and the safety of merchandise and crew.

Offshore logistics testing

Last year Equinor and drone operator Nordic Unmanned tested the incorporation of logistics drones into offshore operations, and the partners say they successfully completed the world’s first in-field drone logistics operation test at an offshore field. The drone operations took place at Equinor's Gullfaks C offshore installation in the North Sea from Aug. 15-29, 2023. The companies said they have proven the maturity of the technology and the readiness to include fully automatic drones in offshore logistics operations.

The offshore crew performed 51 fully automated beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights at the Gullfaks Field, consisting of flights delivering cargo between the three installations and an emergency response vessel. The team also developed the procedural framework allowing for quick implementation of offshore drone operations for Equinor and other offshore operators. Nordic Unmanned aims to obtain full autonomy for its system, allowing operations to be performed from an onshore operational center without crew present offshore.

Offshore cargo drone deliveries

Equinor also has been collaborating with Skyports Drone Services, which offers drone logistics, survey and monitoring operations. The companies have partnered to trial electric drone deliveries to North Sea oil rigs and installations, with the goal of demonstrating how on-demand cargo drone services can solve logistical challenges and improve safety and sustainability offshore.
Launched in September 2023, Skyports said the two-month flight program marks the first time that daily, on-demand drone services offshore have been piloted from shore. The highly automated cargo drone, from Swoop Aero, flies distances of up to 114 km, operating cargo deliveries between Equinor's processing center site in Mongstad on the west coast of Norway and three installations in the Gullfaks oil field in the North Sea, as well as intra-installation. The North Sea operations with Equinor are Skyports' longest flights to date.
Skyports has operated dozens of flights for the project and is scheduled to operate hundreds more throughout the trial carrying spare parts, equipment and care packages.
The partners said a key focus of the trial is to explore how the service can be scaled with minimal human intervention. The aircrafts are remotely piloted by a small Skyports team from the Equinor remote operations center in Bergen. The drones fly automatically with Skyports remote pilots overseeing the duration of the operations. Equinor staff on the installations have been trained by Skyports to load and unload cargo, switch and charge batteries, safely interact with the drones, and have completed installation side activities for all flights conducted to date. Skyports said it has had positive project results, and deliveries could be extended to include additional offshore installations.

UAVs operating BVLOS

In late 2022, satellite communication experts Cambridge Consultants (CC) supplied Flylogix, an unmanned aviation business, with a communication system that enabled the company to fly its uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) offshore BVLOS.
Flylogix says it utilizes uncrewed aircrafts to reduce the costs, risks and the environmental impact of measuring energy industry methane emissions. With the help of CC technology, point-to-point radio-based control systems can now safely control UAVs BVLOS from a central control center.
BP Ventures invested £3 million ($3.8 million) into Flylogix in 2022, which the company said it will use to expand into new regions, including the US, Norway and Trinidad & Tobago. Flylogix has worked with bp since 2018 to monitor and measure methane emissions at its UK North Sea facilities. 
The company plans a crossover to the renewable energy sector, performing wind turbine blade inspections at offshore sites.