North Dakota is hoping to expand the role of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in the state’s oil and gas fields by pushing federal regulators to allow use of the devices “beyond the visual line of sight” (BVLS) of an operator.

The state Department of Commerce and an industry-backed research effort called the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program (iPIPE) are behind efforts to gain the approval.

iPIPE has tapped eight of its major members to participate in a research effort later this year, when some of their pipelines will be monitored beyond the line of sight by UAS.

“Drones are being used in North Dakota now in sort of niche markets, but with the iPIPE program, we’re going to do something radically different in 2019,” said Jay Almlie, iPIPE program manager at the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota.

Almlie outlined plans that began with the retention of a Boeing Corp. UAS subsidiary, Insitu, to provide help to an industry-led consortium including some of the Bakken’s largest producers and midstream operators.

“They’re going to be doing first-of-its-kind BVLS monitoring of gathering pipelines,” Almlie told NGI’s Shale Daily. “They’re going to be doing leak detection from drones.”

Whiting Petroleum Corp.; Hess Corp.; Oasis Petroleum Corp.; Midstream Energy Partners LLC, Equinor ASA; Oneok Inc.; Goodnight Midstream LLC, and the refiner Andeavor are supporting the research efforts.

CEO Matt Dunlevy, of the North Dakota-based UAS services company, SkySkopes Inc., said the biggest issue for the sector is BVLS. “When we get beyond BVLS we will be competing with manned aircraft, and data-seeking drones will be able to fly for longer periods of time,” he said, adding that it’s ultimately up to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to authorize the practice.

“We’ll either be able to detect leaks earlier or from a production standpoint see land shifts and a potential problem before a situation goes south on a pipeline,” he said. “This is going beyond just compliance and that is what BVLS is all about.”

North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), which oversees oil and gas activity in the state, already uses drones for geological survey work and to verify site remediation by industry operators.

“They are used to obtain visuals of areas that are otherwise difficult to traverse by vehicle or on foot, and to get a better visual of areas of a large expanse such as during landslide mapping,” said agency spokeswoman Katie Haarsager.

Dunlevy cited an economic report on the integration of drones from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Although it’s six years old, the report found drones could have an $82 billion impact on the U.S. economy between 2015-2025.

To be sure, drones are already widely employed across the oil and natural gas industry. Bakken operators are far from the first to deploy drone technology. Five years ago, four companies initially were cleared by the FAA to conduct flyovers of oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico. Utilities also for several years have been using the technology to monitor operations.

North Dakota has about 0.5% of the commercial pilots licensed by FAA nationally, which it estimates will reach 400,000-450,000 in 2023. That could mean that North Dakota has 2,000-3,000 licensed pilots eligible for the UAS sector in 2023, according to a UAS executive in the state who keeps track of the national statistics and economic estimates.

In oil and gas, state jurisdiction in North Dakota covers only liquids pipelines, so iPIPE’s upcoming BVLS research will focus on those facilities. “However, we anticipate that many of the technologies advanced through the program will have applications to other pipeline sectors,” the program’s website notes.

“At the outset, this program is funding approximately $4 million in development and demonstration activities over the course of almost four years, and as additional pipeline operators join the program, further funding will be applied to more technologies.”