Drones Improve Inspection Results For Argentina's Oil and Gas Refineries

Thermal Functionality Empowers Safer, More Efficient Inspection

By Jaime Perez Jaime Perez
Jul 1, 2019 6:19:00 PM

As drones became a reliable solution for enterprise companies, Argentina’s largest oil and gas companies grew interested in utilizing inspection services for their infrastructure. Drone adoption in various applications has brought exponential improvement of safety and efficiency to the country’s top-tier O&G players including YPF, Shell, Petrocuyo, Edelap and 360 Energía. 

Over the last four years, Felipe Vadillo, a professional aircraft engineer, has conducted inspections for oil and gas refineries with thermal drones. He was one of the first to use multi-rotor drones in Argentina, and performed the first field test to evaluate the functionality of a refinery flare system. The test convinced plant managers and operators of the usefulness of drone technology and enlisted Vadillo’s services.

Felipe Vadillo flying a drone

Using Drones for Inspections

Refinery infrastructure inspections are instrumental in identifying potential faults or weaknesses throughout the plant. “We carry out photographic surveys weekly, which allows us to access and collect the information we normally wouldn’t be able to. The plant operators then analyze this information thoroughly,” said Felipe Vadillo. 

drone image of tower flare

Using UAV technology for refinery inspections undoubtedly saves plant operators and managers a tremendous amount of time. “Before the arrival of drones, inspections were performed by various personnel, a task that required using helicopters to examine flare systems or scaffolds for high structures,” Vadillo explained. 

So far, drones have been used to:

  • Evaluate the operation of refinery flares;
  • Assess steam systems;
  • Identify weak points in structures;
  • Pinpoint failures in flanges;
  • Reveal deformations;
  • Perform proper maintenance.

One of the main advantages of using drone technology for inspection services is that plant operators do not have to shut down operations for extended periods. “Oil and gas refineries could potentially lose millions of dollars a day if they are forced to halt services,” Vadillo commented. “If a furnace is out of commission for 130 days, it results in a significant loss in production for the plant.”

With drone technology at hand, oil refineries can prevent plant shutdowns, cut routine maintenance time, perform inspections without having to halt operations, and reduce the amount of money and resources needed to complete missions. Drone technology seeks to eliminate having to carry out inspections using scaffolds, which can be both expensive and dangerous. With incredible flight software available, plant operators can obtain valuable information quickly, helping them to make crucial decisions more accurately.

Getting Started: The Must-Knows of Performing Drone Inspections

What is Aerial Thermography?

Thermography is the process of using thermal cameras to detect heat signature. When paired with the aerial capabilities of a high-powered drone, pilots can identify heat sources and points of interest without having to make physical contact. The radiated energy that is identified can then be converted into temperature values, providing valuable information.

thermal drone imagery of refinery

For Vadillo, using thermography with UAVs, often referred to as passive thermography, is an excellent way of capturing and displaying the energy produced by objects. Not only does this method save time, it also ensures that inspection teams are kept out of dangerous situations. This is a tool that has helped him deliver incredible results much more efficiently than traditional methods of inspecting.

How to Prepare an Inspection

For a typical plant inspection, Vadillo believes that the color palette must be selected first. Drones like the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual or Matrice 200 Series, equipped with thermal cameras, have several color palette options available.

Since infrared energy is invisible, thermal cameras apply false color at different energy intensities to create images that are then visible. Choosing a color palette is mostly up to user preference. However, it is important that the one selected is capable of clearly displaying thermal anomalies. The palette assigns different colors to highlight specific temperature levels, utilizing more or less contrast depending on the range of colors used.

“Usually we perform three flights, two with RGB cameras and one with a thermal camera.” Due to various protocols, like gaining entrance to the plant, obtaining work permits, coordinating with the team inspector and acknowledging his requirements, becoming familiar with the plant, and evaluating flight routes, an inspection can take anywhere from four to six hours. However, this is significantly less when compared to the amount of time needed for inspections performed without drones, which can reach up to 15 days.

Inspections should be completed on days with good weather. This means avoiding flying when the sun shines directly on objects of interest, which can affect temperature readings. Bad weather can also affect data collection. “For example, rain or heavy clouds may make it challenging to identify certain areas or collect accurate data,” Vadillo expressed. 

Other factors to consider are:

  • Altitude and angle of flight: Observing objects or areas of interest from an excessive altitude can affect the precision that is needed to collect accurate data;
  • Speed: Flying as close and slow to the surface as possible allows you to collect more information;
  • Obstacles: Identifying obstacles beforehand is a critical part of planning a safe flight.

How to Perform Inspections in Refineries

Before any inspection can begin, a code of safe work practices must be established and implemented, complying with current internal, external, and applicable regulations related to the task. 

The implementation of drones for plant inspections allows Vadillo to: 

  • Plan and organize flight paths, collecting valuable information in the process;
  • Perform preventive maintenance during routine inspections;
  • Identify potential failures or weaknesses in infrastructure;
  • Develop maintenance plans that are geared towards solving various issues within the plant.

After inspecting the required facilities, a preliminary report is made, which includes images of all anomalies identified. This is achieved by presenting collected data to plant operators, who then analyze it, and then developing strategies to address specific issues. 

Analyzing various aspects of the refinery is done mostly with thermography software, which provides accurate and relevant data, such as temperature ranges, measurements, and pressure calculations. “Often, we begin analyzing data after all flight routes are completed or when the client is satisfied with what has already been collected,” commented Vadillo. 

Drones Revamping the Oil Industry

The success of drone technology within the oil industry has restructured the way certain tasks are completed. Inspections are now conducted safely and more efficiently, saving refinery managers much money. UAV programs have provided reliable and affordable solutions to various enterprise companies. As drone technology continues to advance, industries from all over the world are seeking to incorporate UAVs into their daily operations. 

Drones are changing how government agencies and various industries serve the public. While drones have gained an early foothold in public safety, enterprising government agencies and companies are exploring their use in other areas, from transportation and public works to planning and environmental services. DJI has continuously collaborated with various enterprise teams in drone technology integration, R&D, establishing educational programs, and offering hands-on training.

drone image of O&G facility

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Jaime Perez
About the Author Jaime Perez

Passionate about UAV stories

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