Drones used to monitor whales in offshore oil and gas industry

Drones used to monitor whales in offshore oil and gas industry

How Exxon Mobil is using drones – and it involves whales

Drones have been a game-changer in the oil and gas industry, as the flying robots perform otherwise costly and dangerous inspections of pipelines, offshore rigs and refineries. Canadian drone maker Aeryon Labs, which performs flare stack inspections using drones for Shell Oil Company, in December 2014 became the first to receive permission from the U.S. government to legally fly drones for the oil and gas industry. And while Exxon Mobil says it has also been using drones for similar purposes as its oil and gas competitors for the past several years, they aren’t stopping there.

Exxon this year successfully used drones along the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. to contribute to an ongoing a continuing research project of tracking whales. It’s typical for oil and gas companies to do environmental studies before conducting offshore operations.

“The detection allows us a greater level of awareness of where the animals are, and that helps with our mitigation strategies,” said Ashley Alemayehu, a spokesperson for Exxon.

The oil and gas giant got into hot water in 2008 when nearly 100 melon-headed whales got stranded in a shallow Madagascar lagoon and died. An independent review panel appointed by the International Whaling Commission found in 2013 that a sonar system used by an Exxon Mobil contractor was the most likely trigger for the stranding, according to The Washington Post.

Exxon Mobil contends the conclusion of the study study’s findings and says its operations don’t diminish marine wildlife populations, though it did change practices to stop use of sonar in certain places. The company still avoids operating in areas sensitive to marine wildlife, such as migration corridors or breeding and feeding grounds.

Exxon Mobil’s efforts to detect the presence of whales have been ongoing for 20 years, but employing drones in that effort is new. In the past, the gathering of research data relied on a web of satellites and employees with binoculars.

Drones have also tracked whales for noncommercial scientific purposes, not only locating and counting the whales but, according to a BBC report, monitoring their health and their behaviour.

“Satellites are limited by their orbit,” said Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, which has operated drones for Exxon. “Drones have a lot more flexibility.”

Satellites also won’t work if obstructions, including clouds, block their view.

Exxon is currently using all three systems — satellites, human counters and drones — to gather and corroborate data.

Drones being used to monitor whales for offshore oil and gas industry

Goldman Sachs analysts suggest that drones will not only simplify operations in the oil and gas industry easier but reduce costs as well.

A report released earlier this year by Goldman estimated that the market for pipeline inspections using drones could be worth $41 million globally, while the market for offshore rig and refinery inspections using drones was projected to reach $1.1 billion.

Read the rest of the story which was originally written for Marketwatch.