From oil rigs to construction sites, Texas embracing drone technology | Crain's

From oil rigs to construction sites, Texas embracing drone technology

  • Sky-Futures uses drones to conduct inspections for energy companies around the world. | Photo courtesy of Sky-Futures

  • Sky-Futures displays two drones used in external inspections and confined spaces. | Crain's photo by Mayra Cruz

The subject of drones in business these days inevitably loops back to high-profile companies like Amazon and its widely publicized campaign to eventually deliver purchases via drones.

But while the e-commerce behemoth is still experimenting, other industries are already deploying the technology. It's happening here in Texas. 

Construction and energy companies, for instance, use drones to gather visual data to inspect construction sites and refineries, as well as other tasks that would otherwise be too dangerous or cumbersome for humans to do.

Sky-Futures arrived in Houston in 2015 from the United Kingdom to open a Texas base for conducting inspections of oil rigs and refineries and gas pipelines with drones. The British startup has performed inspections on offshore platforms in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and other areas around the world.

In September, Autodesk Inc. partnered with 3D Robotics to fly the first drone in downtown Houston over the Aris Market Square Tower. The California tech firms mapped the construction activity, monitored the site and created 3D models from their images.

Drone Dispatch, an Austin startup offering on-demand drone services, has worked with real estate agents and construction and engineering firms, including Big Red Dog Engineering in Houston. Last year, Joshua Barnett, co-founder and president, talked up the technology's applications at the Solar Business Festival in Austin.

The energy and construction companies turning to this technology are finding the data they obtain is much more accurate, said Miriam McNabb, CEO of Jobs for Drones, an online drone-services marketplace.

“It's cheaper to get the data using drones, and the better, more frequent, and more accurate data also allows more profitable projects and better management,” McNabb said. “I think that those industries are adopting drone tech incredibly fast.”

Faster and safer

Aside from more precise information, drones have made it much safer to acquire data than in-person inspections.

“The same information would require personnel to walk on the roof and examine it by hand and eye, inch by inch,” McNabb said. It was “both time-consuming and, depending upon the roof, potentially dangerous.”

The energy and construction industries benefit from having a bird’s-eye view to make adjustments to projects as needed and help perform tasks in much less time than it would take humans to perform, said Dick Zhang, CEO of Identified Technologies. The Pittsburgh startup's smart drone mapping system has been deployed by Texas-based oil and gas companies to help with construction of pipelines and other projects.

“Frequently, it would take weeks and months ... to survey miles and miles of pipelines,” he said. “Now with this end-to-end technology, [covering] 100 acres is taking 10 minutes instead.”

Consumer drones with professional capabilities can each cost between $1,500 to $3,000, while industrial ones can range from $30,000 to $50,000, McNabb said. Despite having a price tag in the five-figure range, industrial drones are worth the investment for many businesses, said McNabb of Jobs for Drones.

“That is because the return on investment for these applications is so high,” said McNabb, who also writes for Dronelife. “It is vastly cheaper to use a drone for surveying, mapping, and inspection in the energy industry than it would be to obtain the same data by helicopter.”

Engineering, architectural and construction companies like The Beck Group are applying drones to perform tasks like inspections, surveying and mapping. Grant Hagen, virtual design and construction manager for The Beck Group, said that using drones has given his team access to up-close views that were previously unavailable. Hagen oversees nine projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

For example, drones can zero in for a closer look on building materials that appear to have been installed correctly from a distance, he said. "It's kind of out of sight, out of mind," Hagen said. "You're not necessarily looking in those areas, but there could be a lot of scraps left over."

Drone misconceptions

Hagen says he'd like to dispel the notion that drones are mere toys for the hobbyist.

“People can buy them as toys or a hobby for their kids for Christmas, but the reality is that we look at them as more like tools, like estimators or a piece of machinery that does any kind of work on a construction site,” he said. “This is just another tool in our tool chest.”

Convincing businesses of the commercial potential of drone technology isn't always an easy sell, despite studies like one by Goldman Sachs that expects the industry to have a $100 billion value by 2020.

Drone Dispatch initially had a hard time getting businesses interested in using drones because the technology was so closely associated with military use, said Joshua Barnett, president and co-founder. 

“There is a difference in the million dollar war machine and a $1,500 quadcopter that takes pictures,” he said. 

Another early misconception: Many clients believed that drones would be used as a spy apparatus instead of a measurement tool, Barnett said

VIATechnik LLC specializes in offering technological services to architecture, engineering and construction companies through virtual reality applications, building information modeling and computer assisted designing. As drone technology has become more prevalent and more companies are open to using them, Chicago-based VIATechnik has focused on educating clients, said content marketing manager Molly Reppen.

“We’re working with clients who have that futuristic aspect to their company and they’ve been wanting to use these new technologies,” Reppen said. They’re not really stuck in their ways.”

Tracking data

Drones are a versatile platform and are just beginning to be used in different applications, said Tristan Randall, strategic projects executive for Autodesk. In the construction industry, he added, drones have the potential to help the workforce be safer at a job site and be more productive.

“Drones allow you to have a better awareness of what’s going on and that can make you more effective on a broad range of dimensions,” Randall said. “You can have better cost-and-schedule performance because you understand what’s going on on-site. You can be safer because you’re keeping workers out of harm’s way like obstructions on the side of the buildings, like unstable slopes.”

Another issue the construction industry faces is generating waste at sites, he said. The American Institute of Architects estimates that between 25 percent to 40 percent of materials are wasted at construction sites. Randall said that drones may help to lower waste materials and reduce the environmental impact of the construction, architecture and engineering industries.

“Being able to track and understand what’s going on at the site ... will allow us to reduce the amount of waste we contribute overall as an industry,” he said. “There are some broad and overall powerful implications with what drones can do for the industry.”

More than inspections

Many Sky-Futures inspections for oil and gas businesses are still by teams of workers suspended by rope who then check platforms or tanks. 

“Drones right now can’t replace rope access completely, but if we can reduce the time these guys are at risk, then we’ve made it a lot safer and cheaper, too,” said Jay Forte, vice president of operations at Sky-Futures. “It takes a lot less time to put a drone in the air than a four-man team.”

The company is now moving toward training drone operators for different applications, he said. Forte said he estimates more companies will offer drone services and it will create a demand for the energy industry to require higher standards for its operators. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial drone operators to be at least 16 years old and pass a knowledge test. Before the new rules were in place in August, operators were required to be licensed pilots.

“Many companies are setting their own barriers to entry,” Forte said. “We think the barriers should be higher for certain industries.”

Aside from inspections, Sky-Futures is focusing on providing training for a variety of scenarios. It set up a partnership with the firefighting training field at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in College Station to provide hands-on training in simulated refinery and disaster scenarios. Forte said he believes that in the next five years, every fire truck will make drones part of the emergency equipment to assess a location so those first responders know where to focus their efforts, perform searches and even find people needing. The same goes for refineries and offshore platforms.

“They owe the public a higher standard of safety,” he said.

April 3, 2017 - 5:58pm