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Drones: Unmanned Aerial Systems in the Drilling Industry

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Introduction

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or “drones” are quickly changing the way construction companies do business, and offer solutions to many complex construction and safety challenges.

 

Specialty contractors are increasingly using drone payloads like still/video cameras, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Laser Scanning, FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared), multi-gas monitors, and other specialized payloads to monitor their construction and industrial activities.

 

While there are several versions of UAS made, the most commonly used drones for construction applications are the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) device with four, six, or eight rotary blades. More blades mean more lift, and that lift provides more power for attached payloads. With the VTOL design, UAS can remain in one place for extended periods without the high costs associated with using helicopters and small planes for the same job. However, the battery life of VTOL drones can be a limiting factor with current battery technology permitting average flight times of just 25 to 30 minutes. Fixed-wing drones typically have longer flight times and are very useful for missions like pipeline, power line and other linear survey and inspection applications, but do not have the ability to hover in place like the VTOL UAS, or get close to the target for detailed inspections, and may require some type of launch and recovery system.

 

Applications

Potential UAS applications for the drilling industry include:

  • Inspections of equipment such as crane booms, tips, sheaves and fixed/running rigging. This capability potentially eliminates the need to climb a mast or boom or ascend in an aerial work platform for the inspection task, an obvious safety and time saving advantage.

  • Overflight of construction sites, especially early in the construction cycle, can help to assess site conditions and identify potential access concerns such as slopes, depressions, changes in surface soils/coloring, etc., identify evidence of previously disturbed ground conditions such as pipelines, vaults, manholes, etc., that can undermine the soil stability and potentially the bearing capacity to support equipment. This valuable information can be uploaded to a BIM model in near real-time via point cloud.

  • Drones can assist with determining the layout of the drilling work to be performed, sequencing tasks, as well as identifying access routes into each area of a site.

  • Identify and document potential overhead hazards such as power lines, trees, and existing structures for the BIM model.

  • Drone overflights during course of construction can be used to document progress of work and the ever-changing conditions onsite.

  • Drones can be used to increase efficiencies by identifying lay-down areas and material storage areas to reduce required handling and travel distances, as well monitoring the movement of equipment, crews and installation tasks.

  • Drones can be used to monitor air above the ground, over spoil piles, or in drilled shafts for oxygen content, LEL and airborne contaminants. Tethered drones can get into confined spaces, have nearly unlimited power, can operate in low oxygen conditions, and may have intrinsically safe features where LEL is a consideration.

  • Document the job as work progresses from mobilization through completion.

  • Inspect cages and rigging during hoisting and installation.

  • Estimate stockpiles.

  • Document quality control inspections.

  • Marketing videos and photos.

  • Obtain useful information in a very expeditious and cost-effective manner.

Best of all, drones can be used to accomplish dirty, dull and dangerous jobs that employees traditionally perform, like climbing crane booms, entering confined spaces, and monitoring environmental conditions without exposing the worker to danger.

New FAA Rules

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which controls U.S. National airspace and has federal regulatory authority over operation of all types of aircraft, maintains that there are over 7,000 aircraft over U.S. skies at any given time. The FAA is rightfully concerned about sharing limited airspace with hobby and commercial use of drones and potential interference with civil and commercial aviation, not to mention the potential homeland security issues. Until recently, the commercial use of drones in the United States was complicated by a lengthy certificate of authority/waiver process, and required companies to have an FAA certified pilot for operating UAS. New FAA rules simplify the process to operate the devices legally, and do not require a sport pilot to fly them. The FAA recently released the new 14 CFR Part 107 rules which were effective August 29, 2016. Those rules include the following requirements for the commercial use of UAS:

  • Anyone 16 years old and up can fly UAS commercially. However, UAS operators must speak, write, and understand the English language.

  • You can now operate devices without an FAA airworthiness certification, pilot’s license or Section 333 exemption/COA if the requirements below are met:

  • Prospective operators must pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an “FAA-approved knowledge testing center.” Test locations can be found on the FAA website www.faasafety.gov.

  • If you currently hold an FAA pilot’s license you can bypass the testing center by passing an FAA online course specific to UAS operations. Once the exam is passed, you can apply for and receive a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate (RPAC) with a small UAS rating. (As with manned aviation, we recommend keeping a flight log with hours documented for each type of craft used).

  • The FAA requires operators that have obtained the RPAC to pass a knowledge test every two years. Operators must be free from physical or mental conditions that may interfere with safe flight practices.

  • Prospective RPAC operators must be vetted (background check) by the Transportation Security Administration.

  • Operators must register their craft with the FAA on their website (small fee) and mark the craft with the unique registration number provided.

  • The UAS device must weigh less than 55 pounds (including payload) and drone operating speed cannot exceed 100 MPH.

  • Drone operators must fly within Visual Line-of-Sight (VLOS) of the device and less than 400 feet above ground level. If planning to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) of the craft, as when using AR or “First Person View” (FPV) a visual observer is required whenever the  device is out of view of the operator. This rule will likely change as BVLOS technology matures and the FAA/NASA UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system currently in development matures.

  • With a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate granted by FAA, drone operators can fly during daylight or civil twilight only. No night flights are allowed unless permitted through an FAA approved waiver.

Users are required by FAA to conduct preflight checks to ensure that UAS are in safe operational condition, and the importance of keeping detailed maintenance records cannot be over emphasized. Finally, according to the FAA, you must make your drone available to the FAA for inspection and testing if requested, and you must report any incident resulting in serious injury or property damage exceeding $500 (not including damage to your aircraft) to the FAA within 10 days.

 

 

"

The ultimate safety net is having appropriate insurance."

 

FAA currently prohibits flights over “non-participating” personnel, which is not well defined at this time. Before undertaking commercial drone operations over persons or contracting with a drone services provider, we recommend verifying this prohibition by consulting with the FAA and your UAS operator to ensure compliance with both letter and spirit of the regulation.

The FAA is mostly silent on state and local regulation of UAS. Over 40 states have considered or passed legislation, and others have passed laws or resolutions around privacy and unwanted surveillance. The FAA and various construction industry groups like the Associated General Contractors would like the FAA rule to “preempt” state and local government rules outside  traditional areas of state concern. However, several major cities like Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles have already passed laws to prevent any drones from operating within city limits, and this could be a barrier to using UAS to document projects located in these downtown building locales. Your company should determine what the laws are in the states and cities where they operate.

Flying Over People

Common sense safety and risk principles suggest you should not operate a drone over non-participating personnel any more than you would allow non-participating personnel to walk around your jobsite during a critical crane lift. On construction sites, management and craft workers would be typically considered participating parties. However, third party persons outside the fence and not involved in the construction process (e.g. pedestrians and passing vehicles) would not. The way tower crane movements are typically managed on construction sites may be a model for UAS operations on building sites. Ideally, drone flights would be done when the least number of employees are onsite. Companies may consider incorporating UAS operations into their pro ject orientation and have attendees acknowledge that UAS operations may occur while they are onsite.

Risk Management and Safety Considerations

In the context of aviation, risk management refers to the use of active technologies and other mitigating techniques to assist operators to fly safely and not put non-involved third parties at risk. Some risk management and safety considerations for operating UAS include:

  • While UAS is a great technology, the potential for Illegal surveillance and trespass by your employees and/or vendor is a consideration. Ensure UAS data gathering is limited to the work and not capturing video of the pool party at the adjoining property, or operations at the nearby military facility.

  • Potential FAA and Homeland Security issues/conflicts include operations near airports and trauma centers with helicopter medevac operations. The possibility of drones flying in close proximity to or in the path of private or commercial aircraft is real. Flight planning and hazard analysis should include site specific operating parameters, including keeping the UAS flight path to a discreet area and altitude. Online waivers can and should be obtained through the FAA website for operations within five miles of an active airport or near other critical flight operations. This is a good way to steer clear of potential trouble and ensure your operations will not interfere with commercial, medevac, or privately owned aircraft.

  • The possibility of bird strikes or attacks on devices, which can result in drones crashing in an unpredictable manner.

  • Operating in high winds. Follow manufacturers operating guidelines for maximum wind speed.

  • The potential for cell tower/electromagnetic interference with onboard navigation systems. Issues may include lost wireless connection and problems with the onboard GPS/ navigation system.

  • Hacking (“spoofing”) of drone controls by persons trying to take control of your drone.

  • Loss of drone power, resulting in possible personal injury, death or physical damage to third party vehicles or structures. Most drones have a “return home” feature when the device reaches a predetermined battery life. However, the flight path used by the return to home feature needs to be considered, particularly when the device does not have “detect and avoid” technology built-in. It is important to ensure a proper and safe return home flight path.

  • Incorporating “geo-fence” software into your device to prohibit operation in restricted airspace. For example, the manufacturer DJI recently excluded the area surrounding the 2016 Rio Olympic Games from their navigation software.

Insurance Options

Whether you are the purchaser of drone services or the provider of them, insurance is the first issue to address (after verifying proper operator certification, experience and training). Of equal importance is the contract or agreement pursuant to which the drone services will be bought or sold. Just as you would have a written contract from any other provider of vendor services, such an agreement is necessary to ensure that indemnity, hold harmless and other risk mitigation terms, conditions and requirements are properly addressed. The first line of defense is to define the contractual relationship between the parties, and properly allocate the risks and responsibilities. The ultimate safety net is having appropriate insurance.

Those companies hiring UAS services should ensure the drone operator or vendor accepts responsibility for accidental loss of the equipment and damage to any third party property and bodily injury. UAS coverage is readily available in North America. However, you should carefully select a well-qualified broker with applicable experience in placing insurance for the small aviation sector, particularly in placing drone coverage. When speaking to your broker and carrier about insurance options, be sure to discuss how other lines of coverage (e.g. professional lines) either “dovetail” or conflict with your existing coverages. Cyber coverage may be recommended if the information you gather is sensitive or classified, and stored on a USB device or memory card on the drone device.

There are several strategies for obtaining UAS coverage. The primary strategies are taking on the risk of operating UAS in-house, or using a vendor/subcontracting the work to others.

Embrace the risk – This strategy applies to those who operate drones in-house with owned devices, various payloads, and FAA certified operators. With this strategy, companies can obtain the appropriate insurance by consulting your broker/agent and insurance carrier for options. The standard Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy and most if not all non-standard CGL policies excludes liability arising out of the insured’s “ownership, maintenance or use” of an aircraft. Since the FAA has declared that drones are “aircraft,, the devices would trigger this exclusion and would not cover your UAS activates. Aside from self-insuring, companies have two primary strategies when considering insurance.

Aviation Coverage – This insurance strategy involves purchasing an aviation policy to cover the UAS exposure. Aviation specific coverage can provide liability coverage arising out of the use, ownership, or operation of a UAS for bodily injury and property damage. Some insurers will also provide options for physical damage coverage to the drone itself. Premiums will vary based on the drone types and payloads, use, and experience of the operator. This strategy may also be a good solution for companies with existing aviation policies, where UAS can be added to the existing aircraft schedule via endorsement. Many companies that have virtual design and construction (VDC) teams are uniquely suited to incorporating UAS for data acquisition into existing software like BIM 360. Companies looking for commercial insurance must have robust UAS flight safety and risk management programs.

Commercial General Liability (CGL) Endorsement – To override the aviation exclusion inherent in most CGL policies, an endorsement can be attached to the policy to allow UAS operational coverage. This option is good for incidental in-house use of drones where it is not a part of the core business.

Transfer the risk – Another strategy for employing UAS services is to hire a specialty vendor or subcontractor with an FAA-compliant program, a robust risk management and safety program, adequate bonding and insurance, etc. This strategy makes sense for many smaller companies that do not specialize in UAS services, or have sophisticated VDC departments to process the data gathered by drones. This strategy may also make sense for many companies because the UAS technology is developing so quickly that it can require a lot of work and expense to keep up.

The vendor must meet FAA, state and local regulatory guidelines, if applicable. Legal liabilities, whether you are the manufacturer, operator or user of a drone is an area which requires increasing focus as the drone industry continues to grow exponentially. Remember, drones/UAS are aircraft operating in the federally controlled National Airspace System (NAS). This means that just like the pilot of a manned aircraft, the same potential liabilities exist for drone operators. Those hiring UAS services should ensure that the drone operator accepts responsibility for accidental loss of the equipment as well as damage to any third-party property and/or physical injury.

Summary

Drones are a rapidly evolving technology with many current and future applications. Companies can realize significant cost and time savings using drones over traditional aircraft. Companies must weigh the benefits and risks of buying and using in-house UAS or using a vendor to perform the work. If you decide to integrate drones into your construction operations, insurance coverage strategies should be discussed with your insurance broker and carrier. Hire experienced UAS operator(s) and train alternates, insure risk analysis and flight safety procedures are used on each site. Finally, using vendors or subcontractors to perform the work demands a thorough review of prospective operator contracts and insurance.

Sources for Additional Information

U.S. DOT (FAA) 14 CFR Part 91 Unmanned Aircraft Systems, http://www.faa.gov/uas

AUVSI's eBrief– auvsi.org

sUAS News – http://www.suasnews.com/

Unmanned Aerial Online – https://unmanned-aerial.com

 

To download a PDF of this article as originally featured in Foundation Drilling magazine, click here

Reprinted with permission from Foundation Drilling magazine, 2017

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