In the Alaskan tundra, inspecting a pipeline isn't easy. Most pipelines don't follow what few roads are there, so trucks often aren't an option. And using low-flying airplanes can be unsafe to pilots in snowy, windy weather.
Now, though, the emergence of sophisticated, pilotless aircraft is presenting energy companies with another possibility for keeping an eye on operations in the Arctic and other harsh environments where they often work.
Unmanned aerial vehicles flying over pipelines while outfitted with special sensors could detect leaks quickly. And that's not the only potential application.
Energy companies are testing drones to inspect hard-to-reach spaces like refinery flare stacks, offshore platforms and even wind turbine blades in an effort to save time and boost worker safety.
As the Federal Aviation Administration develops rules that will govern the devices, oil and gas companies around the world are on the forefront, working closely with the drone industry to test the unmanned aircraft.
Some in the energy sector say it's only a matter of time before unmanned aerial vehicles become a common -- and even integral -- part of their business.
"It's coming," said Curt Smith, a director at BP's chief technology office, which is in Houston. "The question is how long will it take."
The U.S. government has used unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, for decades. But the technology caught increased intention with the development in the 1990s of the iconic Predator drone, which has been used in hotspots like Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
Now interest is growing in drones for commercial purposes.
"It follows the great tradition of penicillin, radar, radios and GPS -- you see technology grounded and developed in the military, and now it's poised to do so much more in the commercial sense," said Ian Glenn, CEO of ING Robotic Aviation, a Canadian seller of drones and drone-based inspection services.
He expects the oil and gas sector to be a major client.
BP has tested a small drone to see if it can carry cameras and sensors that are used to detect weak spots and leaks in pipelines.
Historically, sensors used in pipeline inspections have required transport by plane or helicopter, but they've gotten smaller, and BP researchers now believe it might be possible to deploy them on a small drone.
Houston-based exploration and production company Apache Corp. has used drones to conduct four inspections of flare stacks at a gas plant in northern Scotland.
Previously such inspections were only possible during planned shutdowns that lasted at least three weeks, and workers had to climb the high-rising stacks, said Derek Welsh, a senior inspection engineer at the facility.
Today Apache works with a U.K.-based company called Cyberhawk Innovations that flies a drone around stacks taking photos, working in concert with Apache's inspectors to search for telltale signs of damage like cracking and crumbling.
So far, they've found none, and the plant has been able to defer otherwise costly shutdowns. "These guys are on site for two days, and everything is still live," Welsh said. "It's significant savings, obviously."
Last year, Houston-based ConocoPhillips launched several UAVs from a ship in Alaska's Chukchi Sea as part of a test to see if they could conduct surveys of ice and marine life often required by environmental regulations.
Those flights marked the first FAA-approved commercial operation by unmanned aircraft.
Environmental monitoring now typically involves a pilot, co-pilot and four researchers in a helicopter taking notes.
The work is expensive and can be risky, since it involves flying at low altitudes, said Andrew Duggan, managing director of the Australian office of Insitu, which manufactures the ScanEagle drone used in the ConocoPhillips test.
A UAV, on the other hand, can take images without putting humans at risk, and beam them to researchers in real time.
Despite the industry's interest in the technology, however, it will take time before it's widespread.
Because the FAA must authorize all commercial UAV operations case-by-case, drones in the U.S. are mostly used in experiments and tests, often in partnerships between the private-sector and university researchers.
Some of that research is under way in Texas, where a consortium called Lone Star UAS won approval last year to operate one of just six FAA-approved test sites for unmanned aerial systems.
The designation allows fast-track approval of drone testing by participants including Texas A&M-Corpus Christi -- the lead institution in Lone Star UAS. That has industry "lining up at the door," said Ron George, senior research development officer at the university.
"These technologies promise to be very efficient and cost effective," George said. "It's pretty easy to see why these technologies are appealing to the oil and gas industry."
The FAA is still developing regulations to cover drones, and it expects to publish a proposed rule for smaller devices weighing less than 55 pounds later this year.
Meanwhile, the technology itself is still far from perfect.
The first ConocoPhillips flight in Alaska made history. But the second crashed into the sea. The manufacturer said that's not that unusual, since UAVs lack the backup systems of commercial aircraft.
George noted also that while manned airplanes have "sense and avoid" systems that help prevent mid-air collisions,the FAA is still analyzing the potential for that technology in drones.
There's also the fear that hackers could take over remote control of a drone in mid-flight.
Lone Star UAS and other test sites are conducting research in both those areas.
Another question is what to do with data the drones collect. The challenge for the industry is figuring out how to use that data in a meaningful way and integrate it into existing processes, said Brian Richards, innovation lead at the consulting firm Accenture.
Cyberhawk CEO Craig Roberts also acknowledged drones have an image problem. "Your average perception of drones is they're going to blow you up or spy on you," he said.
But his company was born of a desire to find better ways to conduct offshore platform inspections, which sometimes requires workers to dangle from ropes -- neither safe nor efficient.
Roberts envisions a future in which the technology is ubiquitous in the industry, and every offshore platform has a drone that does daily fly-arounds in search of anomalies on the structure that warrant further scrutiny.
Many in the drone industry say they view unmanned aerial vehicles as having a trajectory similar to underwater remotely operated vehicles.
Once the realm of science fiction, ROVs are now critical to offshore work, performing complicated tasks thousands of feet underwater.
"It's about how you can make people safer in an industrial environment and take them out of dangerous situations," Roberts said. "It's a fantastic boon for safety."
©2014 the Houston Chronicle