Energy companies eye drones for pipelines, offshore platforms

Energy companies are looking forward to upcoming unmanned aerial vehicle regulations that could allow them to use drones to monitor places that are difficult or harmful to reach.

The Houston Chronicle reports that energy companies are considering using drones to inspect offshore platforms, pipelines in the snowy Alaska tundra and flare stacks at oil refiners, among other places.

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Oil and gas giant BP has already tested a drone for pipeline inspections, and Houston-based Apache Corp. has used them in the United Kingdom to monitor flare stacks at a gas plant.

Commercial drone use is currently mostly prohibited in the United States while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) writes rules for them.

As part of FAA’s research, it allowed ConocoPhillips Co. to use drones in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska to survey ice and marine life, a step that’s usually required before oil and gas exploration, the Chronicle said.

ConocoPhillips’s flight was the first FAA-approved commercial drone flight. But the second test crashed into the water.

Ian Glenn, chief executive officer of ING Robotic Aviation in Canada, told the Chronicle he expects the oil and gas sector to be major client of the drone industry.