A helicopter equipped with magnetic sensors flew over three plots of Pennsylvania state lands hunting for signs of forgotten oil and gas wells last summer at a cost of about $2,000 an hour.
Meanwhile, a promising tool that had potential to be part of the research mission was parked in Pittsburgh: an unmanned six-foot-long helicopter that can fly for an hour and a half on $3 worth of gas.
The drone, owned by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, is grounded while its owners wait for someone clever to develop a magnetic sensor just as sensitive as the full-sized helicopter’s, but still small, light and energy-efficient enough to fit on the remote-controlled machine without hindering its flight.
When the technology catches up, drones equipped with advanced sensors might change the costly and onerous project of searching by air for abandoned gas field hazards into a routine part of business.
“Companies are developing now much smaller magnetic sensors that are lighter, and they have less power draw,” said Richard Hammack, a physical scientist for the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, where one of the laboratory’s three autonomous helicopters is parked outside his South Park office.
“As soon as that’s developed,” he said, “we’re going to give them a ride.”
The oil and gas industry is an obvious match for the emerging drone market, and Pennsylvania drone startups are eager to show gas well and pipeline operators what their flying robots can offer.
Oil and gas companies generally use people on the ground or planes and helicopters in the air to perform frequent surveys and safety checks. Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, as drones are also known, promise a bird’s-eye view and agile data collection at high speeds with lower cost and risk.
“The options available to them are wildly expensive, very slow and very dangerous for anybody that’s deployed on site,” said Dick Zhang, CEO of Identified Technologies, an East Liberty drone company that he founded two years ago. “We saw this problem and proposed a solution.”
Identified Technologies created an automated drone and docking system tailored to gathering data at industrial sites, with a focus on shale gas operations.
A report released by Lux Research in October found that the market for commercial uses of drones will grow to $1.7 billion in 2025, with oil and gas applications as one of the largest segments — worth $247 million — after agriculture, hobbyists and utilities.
Maryanna Saenko, the analyst who led the report, said infrastructure inspection and monitoring is the most eagerly anticipated application for drones in the oil and gas sector. She also found that oil and gas companies have shown they prefer to pay for a drone service where a skilled pilot runs it for them, over buying a drone and learning to fly it themselves.
“If our clients want to move earth, they are not going to buy their own backhoes. They are going to subcontract that out,” Mr. Zhang said.
“We found the same thing with data. Our clients are interested in having that whole data capture sequence done for them and having that information delivered to them. They are not interested in purchasing their own drone.”
Identified Technologies’ drone sits in its dock on a work site until it is instructed to take off, fly a programmed pattern over the site, and return to its dock. Then it uploads the data gathered during its flight so the site manager can access it on a computer.
Right now, most drones employed in the oil and gas sector are valued for what they can see — they are deployed for visual surveys, high-resolution image collection, 3-D models and mapping.
Rob Schwarz, an owner of Wellsboro-based Remote Intelligence, said his two-year-old company is developing drone services for oil and gas industry tasks like pipeline surveys and erosion monitoring.
He and his partners have spent a lot of time asking their contacts in the industry how drones could benefit them.
“Right now it’s more of a discovery time,” he said. “Gas pipelines, erosion and sedimentation, security — that’s where a lot of the interest is, as well as pad layout.”
Eventually, the oil and gas drone market will be defined by the sophistication of the tools the robots can carry, and that means shrinking, without weakening, sensors to detect things like gas leaks that can’t be measured with a camera.
“The sensor suite on board is what’s going to define the true value of the drone,” Ms. Saenko said.
“A lot of the really valuable ways to inspect systems in the oil and gas industry require large, expensive sensors,” she said. “The real question is how well these sensors can be miniaturized and if it’s even cost-effective to do so.”
Regulatory uncertainty has also been a barrier to widespread adoption of the technology.
Federal regulations effectively ban drone use for commercial purposes while the Federal Aviation Administration develops a comprehensive set of rules, but the FAA has given case-by-case permission to some commercial applications, like filmmaking and off-shore oil development.
A lack of clear regulations has been “a huge obstacle” to investment in drone systems, Ms. Saenko said, but it hasn’t stopped companies from offering services. “Right now, everybody is more or less operating in this murky space,” she said.
Both Mr. Zhang and Mr. Schwarz say their drones fly low and in remote areas, far from airports and on private job sites.
“We feel very confident that we are able to operate in the areas that we operate,” Mr. Schwarz said. But unclear regulations can scare off potential customers.
“There’s quite a few that don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” he said.
Laura Legere: email@example.com