Over the past decade, the industry has embraced the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to do everything from detecting for leaks in natural gas pipelines to inspect electric transmission towers: but it has only been within the last few years that the state agencies that regulate those same industries have begun to use drones in their own oversight work.
The Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the operations of the state’s far-flung oil and gas industry, earlier this year launched its first drone program. The Commission employs a fleet of eight drones, six DJI Mavic 2 Dual Enterprise Edition drones, and two Mavic 2 Enterprise Zoom drones, to help inspectors respond quickly to view oilfield sites made unsafe or inaccessible due to fires, flooding, and other natural disasters.
Regulators also hope to use the UAVs, which are operated using the DroneSense platform, to provide an alternative to in-person inspections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Alaska, where the oil and gas industry has been employing drones in its operations since the early years of the last decade, the state has recently begun work to coordinate all the UAV programs operated by its various agencies.
Last December, the Division of Statewide Aviation named Ryan Marlow, a veteran of the private drone industry, as its first UAS/Drone Program coordinator.
“Right now, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation share the same operations manual,” Marlow said in an interview. He plans to get other state agencies such as the departments of Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game that operate their own drone programs, onboard as well.
“Instead of having all of us create our own manuals and processes, we found it better to create a single process and help facilitate that throughout all the agencies,” he said.
Other states have had a slightly longer history in their use of drones to regulate industries and provide other necessary services.
For example, the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources began its drone program in 2017. The department operates a fleet of six DGI Phantom 4s quadcopters; five are maintained by the DMR’s Oil & Gas Division and one by the North Dakota Geological Survey.
The Oil and Gas Division employs its UAVs to conduct pre-site inspections, inspect oilfield reclamation sites and spills, and survey a region’s topography for geohazards hard to discern from ground level, said Cody VanderBusch, a reclamation specialist with the division. About 90% of the department’s drone flights are pilot-controlled, flown by Federal Aviation Administration-certified DMR employees who operate the drones in addition to their other duties.
Chris Maike, a geologist and drone pilot with the North Dakota Geological Survey, said the Survey uses its drone in concert with other state agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, to fly over geohazards such as landslides, “showing how a landslide can impact an interstate or other highway.”
While the state’s drone fleet is currently only equipped with visual cameras, Maike said the state is considering purchasing a fixed-wing aircraft outfitted with a multi-spectral sensor or LIDAR “to give us added capabilities to enhance the work we do.”