Trans-Alaska Pipeline Inspected by First FAA-Approved Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight UAS
Posted August 16, 2019
Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks made history last month by completing the first true beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight under the small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rule. The team flew a long-range hybrid-electric unmanned aircraft nearly four miles along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS Integration Pilot Program – and in partnership with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
Photo by Sean Tevebaugh of University of Alaska Fairbanks
This first deployment of an unmanned aircraft with detect-and-avoid technology could enhance our industry’s ability to monitor pipelines and other energy infrastructure over large areas in Alaska and across the country. Because existing FAA regulations restrict UAS flights in national airspace at or below 400 feet and within the operator’s visual line of sight, the Alaska mission marks a significant step toward standardizing the approval of safe commercial UAS use on a bigger scale. FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell commented:
“The Integration Pilot Program is helping us advance the safe, secure and reliable integration of drones into the national airspace. … This important milestone in Alaska gets us closer to that goal.”
Cutting-edge technologies are already optimizing pipeline performance and automating industry operations, particularly in areas where remote conditions and harsh terrain present challenges for worker safety. Intelligent UAS and remote diagnostics are positioned to further modernize infrastructure integrity management and accelerate rapid response, and this latest test flight demonstrates the equipment’s utility in improving worker safety in routine inspections. Tom Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, explained:
“The ability to use UAVs for surveillance in remote areas of the pipeline increases the tools at our disposal to operate TAPS [Trans Alaska Pipeline System] more reliably and safely and better protect Alaska’s environment. This innovative step forward will advance safe performance not just in our industry, but in multiple disciplines and workspaces across the country.”
The TAPS flight is the latest development in the industry’s advanced digital operations. Last year, Shell received FAA approval to use UAS for aerial monitoring in Texas’ Permian Basin, where robotization has the potential to improve environmental performance and alleviate road congestion.
UAS uptake in the energy industry is part of a larger trend in technological innovation, as producers and distributors employ artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous robots to maximize efficiencies along the entire energy industry supply chain. With optical gas imaging, today’s UAS can more quickly identify leaks to minimize emissions, and by using light detection and ranging technology, the devices can model terrain to preempt issues related to ground shifts.
BVLOS UAS deployed along Alaskan pipelines also have promising applications outside the industry. One project partner, the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI), ultimately envisions 24/7 UAS operations across Alaska, which could mean outfitting UAS for other tasks – like delivering medical supplies to remote locations. Cathy Cahill, director ACUASI, discusses the future uses for unmanned aircrafts:
“These first flights demonstrated that new technology can provide a route toward safe beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation of unmanned aircraft in Alaska. We want to ensure the safety of manned aviation while opening new opportunities for unmanned aircraft cargo deliveries to villages, monitoring of infrastructure, mammal surveys and a host of other missions of use to Alaskans.”
The development of state-of-the-art technologies, like BVLOS detect-and-avoid systems, supports the responsible and reliable production of American energy from Alaska to Texas and everywhere in between. And, with emerging opportunities for UAS flights, what starts as an industry innovation could soon power progress far beyond the oilfield.
About The Author
Sam Winstel is a writer for the American Petroleum Institute. He comes to API from Edelman, where he supported communications marketing strategies for clients across the firm’s energy and federal government practices. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Sam graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina, and he currently resides in Washington, D.C.
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