20 miles east of Houston, Texas lies Shell’s Deer Park site, a 2,300-acre refinery and chemical processing facility which annually produces around 100 million barrels of crude oil and other products. Since 2017, in an effort to monitor and improve safety and efficiency, the facility has utilized unmanned aerial drones to undertake inspections of industrial equipment and provide incident monitoring. The benefits of this are obvious when one considers the considerable height needed to observe and inspect chimney stacks. The use of drones able to easily reach these altitudes eliminates the need to dispatch costly crane and maintenance teams.
The importance of this is perhaps best illustrated with the example of the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. During the storm the refinery’s cooling fans overheated which then needed to be reassessed before they could be restarted. Usually, this would be conducted manually taking up to two hours per unit; however, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators were able to survey four cooling units in just 15 minutes. As a result, in their first year of use at Deer Park, a total of 212 work-at-height inspections were eliminated by the drone team leading to an estimated $1.2 million in savings.
Drone operation is currently overseen by Shell’s ‘Drone Aerial Response Team’ (DART); a site-specific team of operators. However, skilled as DART is, their drones operate in often daunting conditions that expose them to extreme wear and tear and Shell currently lacks a designated in-house team to properly maintain its fleet. Thus, DART opted to utilize DJI’s specialized Maintenance Program in order to ensure their fleet remains in the best possible condition at all times.
Challenges faced by the Shell drone team
Whilst the savings to be made are immense, the Shell drone team face some formidable challenges. Chief among them is that drones are required to fly in close proximity to critical oil and gas infrastructure. This often exposes drones to high levels of steam and heat – greatly increasing the physical wear on sensitive components. The missions the DART team run are also intensive with long operating times. Rigorous inspection missions on this scale can take significant amounts of time, meaning drones, like people, are susceptible to being overworked.
At the same time, drones must be reliably and readily available. The site operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and an incident response could be necessary at any time of the day or night. This means that DART’s drone fleet must be consistently available for dispatch within 20 - 30 minutes.
Drone maintenance isn’t so straight forward
As skilled as the DART operators are, drone maintenance is not so simple a task as it might first seem. Because of the nature of the tasks undertaken, the drones used by Shell are extremely advanced with especially sophisticated engineering beneath the hood. This means that they require a high level of expertise to maintain and keep at optimal performance – a level of expertise that is not always easy to come by.
Likewise, maintenance of an entire fleet requires considerable planning to execute successfully, and without an official maintenance guide, it was challenging to build an appropriate repair schedule based on the usage of their drones. Nonetheless, regular drone maintenance and upkeep are crucial components of any successful commercial drone program.
DJI drone repair and UAV maintenance to the rescue
In an effort to tackle these problems and improve the efficiency of DART’s operations, the team opted to use DJI’s Drone Maintenance Program. As part of this program, a DJI team of drone technicians were able to take over the heavy lifting by introducing a drone equipment maintenance plan including:
- Comprehensive flight testing - By extensively testing each drone’s flight capacity, the risks associated with extensive flight sessions are greatly minimized.
- Deep cleaning - Equipment that is cleaned and refreshed regularly is more likely to retain its operational efficiency.
- Component replacement - By proactively replacing overused parts, the lifespan of drones can be significantly extended, and the value of these assets can remain more stable.
- Upgrading & calibration - Ensuring that all equipment is up to date as it can help to improve performance and efficiency in the long-term.
The success of the DJI Maintenance Program
Shell’s drone program has consistently demonstrated its value and the lessons learned from the pioneering efforts of Shell Deer Park’s DART team are providing a successful blueprint for other companies implementing asset management and inspection drone programs. However, this success is underpinned by the important maintenance work that always keeps the fleet in perfect working order, day or night.
Regular maintenance has ensured Shell’s UAV fleet is consistently available for deployment, both for scheduled tasks and in the event of emergencies. Moreover, through the provision of a comprehensive drone maintenance log, the team has introduced much smarter fleet management. Shell is now able to keep track of the status of their individual UAVs, whilst DJI’s detailed maintenance guidelines paint a picture of how Shell can organize their servicing schedule more effectively.
And those at the heart of the program within Shell have been especially pleased with DJI’s support and assistance. John McClain, the DART Chief Pilot of Deer Park, commends the drone maintenance log system in particular.
“By using the DJI Maintenance Program I receive a report detailing the inspections and preventative maintenance that was completed, the results of those inspections, and the corrections that were made,” he said, “The report includes images of all stages of the maintenance, and I can save this report in my flight management system as proof of ongoing maintenance and the airworthiness of the aircraft.”
Overall, DJI’s Drone Maintenance Program has become an integral supplement to Shell’s operations at Deer Park. Due to the stresses placed upon the fleet conducting operations in extreme conditions, having a comprehensive maintenance schedule in place is a crucial component to ensure their drones remain in the best possible condition to do the job.
What’s more, by utilizing the service offered by DJI, DART no longer needs to worry about whether their UAVs are up to the task. And this lets them focus on doing what they do best – operating their fleet and conducting rigorous drone inspection missions.