We hear the word “drone” thrown around a lot these days. The unmanned vehicles patrolling our nation’s skies have become the United States Department of Defense’s most controversial weapon to date.
The truth is, they’ve been around since the 1930s in one form or another.
But with advanced technology, these so called “drones” are more efficient and accurate than ever before, gathering intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. No matter how you feel about them, they’re here to stay.
Aside from military purposes, these drones are going to start popping up and being employed by some energy companies, too. Very soon, we could start seeing aerial drones buzzing around in the air, surveying pipelines, and checking safety details of operations.
Now the companies are working on taking that technology into the sea with an autonomous, self-guided underwater drone. Deepwater wells that are in extreme underwater depths will use underwater drones to monitor and check wells, detect offshore oil leaks, and patrol operations. All this will be done to minimize the impact on the environment and eliminate production disruptions.
The U.S. Navy routinely uses autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) today to detect potential or existing mines in the Persian Gulf, as Iran has threatened to mine the waters amid ongoing hostilities with the U.S.
The Navy also reported training its first sailors to operate what they call the Sea Glider, an underwater drone that propels itself from the water’s surface to the ocean floor and collects data.
The Sea Glider could prove to be a valuable asset in ensuring the safety of global waterways as it surveys multiple quiet targets over large bodies of water.
But these same benefits could be found in the hands of the energy industry sooner than we think.
The Sea Glider is produced by the University of Washington, where the training was conducted. Its general design is to detect underwater threats like submarines, but with its sensor ability, it could easily be converted to an underwater monitoring and surveying device for energy producers.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also announced this week its Project Hydra concept. It would center around a submarine, or the mother ship, so to speak, and from there would deploy stealthy AUVs into war zones, combating everything from hostile territories to piracy, providing a sophisticated defense strategy.
The project would also deploy unmanned aerial drones (UAVs), depending on the situation. Much the same way that a submarine launches a missile, these drones would be launched into the sea.
DARPA is also developing small, insect-like drones that could be used for the project.
Hydroid is another company, a subsidiary of Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg, that is specializing in AUVs. It is already talking to energy companies and military forces alike. This company's strategy is to manufacture an AUV that would be used for time consuming tasks and in bodies of water too dangerous to send boats through.
The Remus (Remote Environmental Measuring Unit), as it is being called, is programmed with a laptop and operates with human intervention. It was also recently used in a war game-like exercise to seek out mines and gather intel.
Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) is working on its own underwater drone that it is adapting to be launched from submarines. It weighs about 6 pounds and can be transported in a backpack.
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What we want to know is when the energy industry is going to seize the opportunity. Like I said before, some companies are already in talks, and for the companies who make these drones, that’s where the real money is.
As AUVs become a more advanced and proven technology, both sides of the coin are going to want to do business.
Presently, boat-towed sonar tools called towfish are used to patrol underwater pipelines, but if an AUV could get the job done faster, autonomously, and with less man-power, then it’s sure to happen.
Major companies like Shell (NYSE: RDS-A), BP (NYSE: BP), and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) see the potential in these types of drones and the amount of money they could save in the long-term. They’re all toying with the notion of using them for pipeline monitoring.
Though projects like the ones mentioned above are still in relatively early stages of development, much of the technology is already in use by agencies like the U.S. Navy and can be considered highly adaptable for the energy sector.
The true impact can’t be measured yet, but we’ll be keeping an eye out for you.
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