Whales, drones, big oil and the environment

Drones are becoming a game-changer in the oil & gas industry, as the flying robots perform what are otherwise costly and dangerous inspections of pipel
ines, offshore rigs and refineries. Exxon and Shell are among the major oil companies utilising drones in their oil & gas production operations. Exxon has added another dimension, using drones along the coast of Santa Barbara, California, to carry out environmental studies before commencing offshore operations. The company is contributing to a research project on whale tracking and maintains that this detection method allows a greater awareness of where the animals are and helps with their mitigation strategies.

In 2008, nearly 100 whales became stranded in a shallow lagoon in Madagascar and died. An independent review panel determined that a sonar system used by an ExxonMobil contractor was the most likely trigger for attracting the whales to the lagoon.

Exxon contends that there is no scientific evidence that mitigated seismic exploration causes any harm to marine wildlife and it is taking extra precautions to ensure that the sounds produced as part of the offshore operations have minimal interference with the communication between marine mammals.

Although ExxonMobil has been using a combination of satellites and human observation with binoculars for 20 years, the use of drones is a new addition to the programme.  While satellites are limited by their orbit and cloud cover, drones add a great deal more flexibility.

A comparison between the data received in all three systems allows for corroboration of the information from the different sources.

Goldman Sachs analysts suggest that drones will facilitate work in the oil & gas industry and will also reduce costs. A March 2016 report estimates a potential $41 million global market for pipeline inspections and a $1.1 billion market for offshore rigs and refineries using drones.

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