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Drones to Help Texas Railroad Commission with Efficiency, Safety

The Texas Railroad Commission believes its drone inspection team offers multiple advantages, including quality investigation of areas that humans can't reach and reduced person-to-person contact during COVID-19.

Possible well location (002) TRRC
An aerial view of a possible well location.
Courtesy Texas Railroad Commission (RRC)
Several days ago, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) confirmed that a two-mile portion of a creek near Portland, Texas, didn’t have any signs of impact from oil or gas waste. The water-quality investigation was efficient and effective, all thanks to a drone.  

“The [drone] mission gave us an aerial view of land on both sides of a creek where a physical inspection was impossible to perform due to vegetation along the creek,” said R.J. DeSilva, RRC communications director, in an email to Government Technology

Earlier this month, RRC announced that it now employs a statewide drone inspection team, made up of 19 certified pilots, to assist with examinations of hazardous leaks and spills and other emergencies. The drones will be particularly useful in areas that are hard for humans to physically inspect, and the technology will also keep workers safer. 

“An emergency could entail hazardous conditions that may be unsafe for an inspector to get close to on the ground; but by using a drone an inspector can still monitor and respond to an emergency from a safe distance,” DeSilva said. 

How much more efficient do the drones make RRC? As of today, the answer is unknown. More data has to be collected, but initial results seem promising. 

“As the number of drone emergency responses progress over time, we will be tracking various pieces of data and information from the drone responses,” DeSilva said. “Analyzing that information will further help us tailor the drone program to enhance our mission.”

RRC performed its first drone mission in late April to identify whether a well leak had occurred in Reeves County, a rural area in West Texas. The drone was necessary because the road to the site was flooded. The operation was successful, as it allowed the operator of the site to remediate the situation in a timely fashion. 

“With drones, our inspectors can now immediately monitor well blowouts, oil spills and other emergency incidents, and quickly cover large areas of ground in responding to those situations where time is of the essence,” said RRC Executive Director Wei Wang in a release. 

DeSilva said the COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the usefulness of a drone team, in that inspectors and operators can better avoid in-person contact. “The drones are not only a long-term project to help operational efficiency, but can be valuable in the unique situations like the COVID-19 pandemic as we strive to keep employees safe,” he said. 

Inspection drones are becoming more common in other states. Earlier this month, utility organization Southern California Edison announced it will use inspection drones in the coming months to help prevent potential wildfires. In February, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company said it would start utilizing drones to inspect power lines as well as other infrastructure. The city of Albuquerque, N.M., Planning Department also recently revealed that it has used drones to inspect re-roofing jobs. Albuquerque performed more than 750 roof inspections in 54 days with drones. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.