Breakthroughs in drone technology aimed at oil and gas companies, such as advanced integration of artificial intelligence (AI), have added urgency to the fight for regulatory gains with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, are increasingly pairing with AI capable of analyzing data gathered from oil and gas infrastructure in response to industry needs. As a result, interest from midstream operators has grown.

Smaller crude pipeline operators are part of a growing market for companies like Toronto-based SkyX, which recently opened a flight center near Houston in a nod to a growing Texas clientele.

“In the last nine months there’s been a huge uptick in the interest that we’re seeing,” said SkyX COO Gav Martell, adding that the increased interest from smaller oil pipeline operators has been particularly apparent.

“It’s only been in the past year or year and a half when AI has exploded,” said University of North Dakota’s Jay Almlie, program manager for the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program (iPIPE) project, which is focused on better pipeline monitoring through support of emerging technology.

Last year, only half of the proposals evaluated by the iPIPE program included AI, while this year nearly all the proposals include some form of AI, Almlie said.

“That’s exactly where we’ve been focusing,” said Martell. “Companies have been interested in being reactive, but we start the conversation about being proactive. We can tell them what happened over the past year, and using AI, be able to predict what might happen.”

Since going to market last year, SkyX has grown from a six-person operation to a 35-person company, completed two rounds of funding and signed a contract with a midstream company. In September, the company opened a flight test center that traverses 66 acres in Waller, TX, where it plans to conduct demonstrations for prospective customers. The flight center joins the Houston office, which it opened earlier this year.

Currently, SkyX customers are squarely in the midstream space, Martell said. Drone application in upstream oil and gas operations is less developed.

Hess Corp. spokesperson Robert Young said the producer isn’t using drones for inspections in its North Dakota operations, but it is using big data analytics for “exception-based surveillance.”

“We cannot fly drones outside of our visual field in [North Dakota], so their application is limited,” Young said.

Future drone deployment in oil and gas depends heavily on beyond-the-visual-line-of-sight (BVLS) approvals from the FAA. One of the iPIPE objectives is to bolster those approvals in North Dakota, where liquids pipeline gathering is extensive and only stands to expand as midstream operators address the infrastructure shortage in the state.

The pathway to oil and gas operators attaining BVLS approvals widened in late August when the FAA granted Grand Forks, ND-based Airbus Aerial (AA) a BVLS waiver to conduct drone operations in Grand Forks, without the need for a visual observer.

The waiver allows AA to conduct operations as part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, a public–private partnership sponsored by the FAA to help define the regulatory framework for drone operations and their integration into the national airspace system.

AA’s drone work is to focus on flying BVLS over rights-of-way of Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy’s distribution networks in residential neighborhoods in Grand Fork, an important step in assessing how drones can work for utilities. With a precedent in place for drone flight over residential neighborhoods, oil and gas infrastructure should be increasingly able to benefit from drone oversight in the heart of the Bakken Shale.

BP plc announced in early September it was  planning to deploy continuous methane monitoring technology at existing oil and gas facilities throughout its global operations, in conjunction with broadening its use of drones.

BP’s Morag Watson, vice president of digital innovation, remarked on the relationship between drone technology and the goals for methane detection.

“With complementary intermittent tools like drones equipped with lasers and methane ‘sniffing’ technology, we are now creating a step-change in how we operate our new major projects, so that, inspections that used to take seven days will now be able to take 30 minutes. That time saving will allow us to continue to innovate and deliver better results,” Watson said.

Those breakthroughs echo what drone researchers and manufacturers have observed over the past year. The first wave of drone deployment in the industry was really about the aircraft itself, or “the bird,” as it’s also known. The distance and altitude it could reach combined with its responsiveness to pilot commands were the areas of focus. Now, the focus has shifted to the data-gathering technology that can be packed onto the bird, and how companies can best use that data.

At the end of October, the iPIPE program plans to hold its third ‘shark tank’ event, mimicking the ABC program Shark Tank, wherein startup companies pitch well known investors for funding and support. The iPIPE event fields pitches from technology companies that are looking to serve oil and gas operators of energy infrastructure in North Dakota.

Different technology companies are to present to an iPIPE committee, which then would select the technologies to fund and connect to oil and gas operators that comprise its industry membership. The iPIPE project was designed to be an industry-led consortium focused on “near-commercial, emerging technologies” that could prevent and detect leaks from gathering pipelines.

The program was a response to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s May 2017 challenge to reduce pipeline leaks through innovation, which was also thematic in the legislation Burgum signed into law a month prior. The challenge came with a $1.6 million grant from the North Dakota Industrial Commission and an initial contribution from industry members of $3.7 million.

Previous funding winners have included Toledo, OH-based Satelytics and Calgary-based Ingu Solutions.

The iPIPE program is considering 65 proposals this year, roughly three times the number it considered last year. Of those 65, five proposals involve drone technology, up from last year’s two drone proposals, said Almlie.