Canada, UK show promise for unmanned aircraft systems
Commercial unmanned aircraft use in other countries is demonstrating how they could be used in Alaska once proper regulations are in place.
Curt Smith, a technology director for BP, said the company, which commissioned the first commercial overland, unmanned aircraft flight in the country on the North Slope in June, implements technology not because it’s cool, but because it makes sense and improves efficiency.
BP is using very small unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, in Britain to inspect towers at refineries and other facilities on land, Smith said. They are also being used to monitor platform infrastructure in the North Sea.
“They used to put ropes and scaffolding on (the towers) and climb around on them,” Smith said. “It’s not only not that safe — it takes forever to set up and take down and you have to take it out of production when you’re doing your inspection.”
The flights are approved by the Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, the country’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration. Smith said the agency has determined it is safe to fly a UAS that weighs about four pounds around the infrastructure.
He spoke at the annual Alaska UAS Interest Group Meeting in Anchorage Sept. 18.
“We’re waiting for that to happen in the U.S.,” Smith added.
Widespread commercial use of the craft isn’t yet allowed in this country. The FAA is working frantically to establish congressionally-mandated guidelines for small UAS operation by September 2015. The mandate, part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, is unfunded, agency officials are often quick to point out.
BP is trying to get special certificates of authorization, known as COAs in the acronym-friendly industry, to do similar inspections on rig platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Smith said.
The North Slope flight was conducted in conjunction with UAS manufacturer AeroVironment and used a hand-launched, fixed-wing Puma.
At the time BP was vague about the flight’s purpose, saying the Puma would survey pipelines and roads. Smith provided more detail in his presentation.
The COA has been used to fly numerous missions to monitor the condition of the 200-plus miles of gravel road the company uses on the Slope, he said.
“If the roads are in bad shape we can’t move equipment around and we can’t do our jobs. The idea was to basically use some robotics and imaging technologies to maintain these roads better, which means inspect at a lower cost and do it faster,” Smith said.
Steve Poirot, chief technology officer for Fairweather LLC, which provides oilfield support services and was involved in the Puma flights, said BP’s desire to monitor road conditions and have better maps of them was not initially an unmanned aircraft job.
“We wanted the best mapping. We didn’t care how we got it,” Poirot said.
The Puma equipped with light detection and ranging sensors, or LIDAR, turned out to be just as accurate as traditional ground surveys or manned flights using LIDAR, he said.
LIDAR uses pulsed lasers to measure the distance of the surface of the earth from the sensor. When flown over a road, the individual distance measurements are combined in computer-generated maps that show variations in the road’s surface and pinpoint the exact centerline.
The LIDAR maps, combined with GPS guided semi-autonomous equipment, help drivers moving drilling rigs that can be 3.5 million pounds and 28 feet wide on a 32-foot wide gravel path, Smith said, and are a major improvement over what was available before.
“Turns out our maps weren’t that great because they didn’t have to be just to drive around,” Smith said.
The mapping can also be used to rescue personnel stranded in the Slope’s all-too-common whiteout conditions.
While the technology to do the mapping has been around for some time, a UAS makes it feasible.
“Where our Puma comes in is making those maps cost effectively and accurately,” he said.
In Canadian airspace, full-size aircraft are flying sans pilots to track wildfires and sea ice.
CAE’s Nolan Ryon said the company is using a Diamond DA-42 with infrared, LIDAR and radar systems to overlay visual graphics to maps.
Once known as Canadian Aviation Electronics Ltd., Quebec-based CAE is an aviation simulation and modeling company.
Fairweather also flies a manned version of the DA-42 in Alaska to do pipeline surveys. The pilot seat in the state-of-the-art aircraft can be replaced with what is essentially a computer pilot and is then flown from a control center on the ground. The DA-42 is designed to accept nearly every sensor, imaging equipment and camera imaginable.
Flying it unmanned keeps pilots out of harms way on long missions over water or uninhabited territory.
The Canadian government began using UAS to monitor resources in 2012, CAE’s Matt Jamison said. The country does not have explicit restriction on unmanned aircraft use, so missions can be flown with a special flight operations certification from the Department of National Defense, he said.
To pinpoint wildfire hotspots, infrared imaging is combined with synthetic mapping, which can give firefighters more complete information and a better idea of how to attack a blaze, according to Jamison.
Ryon said CAE hopes to extend what it is doing in Canada to Alaska when FAA regulations allow.
Ultimately the company envisions using the DA-42, or other UAS, as part of a complete unmanned system for maritime surveillance, he said. Such a system would employ an unmanned aircraft, a surface buoy and an undersea vehicle and could serve as security, emergency response or wildlife monitoring equipment
“If there’s a detection from either the buoy or our submersible, we’re able to deploy our UAS and get an aerial shot, an underwater shot and a surface shot from our sensor visualization,” Ryon envisioned. “So we have a complete package ready to patrol the waters of Alaska.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].