How drones are aiding the energy sector

 By Nicholas Newman

Drones play a vital role in many parts of the global energy sector…

They are used to inspect and assess the condition of assets, such as energy distribution networks, power plants, pipelines and rigs. They are replacing humans in a variety of dangerous tasks, thus reducing risk and improving workplace safety. In addition, they are aiding the industry’s managers in their decision making.


In the oil industry, drones are replacing conventional inspection techniques which involved workers climbing rigs, pylons and cooling towers etc. According to oil industry recruitment firm Fircroft, drones can be much safer and 85 percent faster and cheaper than human inspections. They allow production to continue and save millions of dollars in lost output.


For example, before drones, inspecting the 70 meter-tall flaring stack at Shell’s Ormen Lange gas processing plant in Norway, used to be a hazardous and lengthy job for engineers. It meant sending staff abseiling down the plant’s tower. To allow such inspections to take place, the plant had to close for two weeks. Today, Shell uses drones controlled by engineers standing on the ground piloting the machines. As a result, the inspections take just a few hours, while the plant keeps running and the engineers are kept safe. Drones, equipped with a range of sensors including high-definition cameras, laser scanners and radar, are replacing humans and helicopters in a whole range of tasks. Such duties include detecting such problems as security issues, vegetation encroachments, leakages, hot and cold spots. As a result, saving time and money for the industry and its clients.
SkyX's SkyOne drone (

Oil rigs

For instance, Eni’s oil rigs are inspected by drones supplied by British drone contractor Sky Futures Ltd. Eni expects airborne analysis and visualization technology to help improve safety by flagging potential problems before they occur. James Harrison, CEO and co-founder of Sky-Futures said: “By partnering with Eni we can further enhance the benefits on offer by analyzing and forecasting operational issues before they happen.”


General Electric has created the Raven drone to replace staff equipped with infrared cameras, walking around oil and gas wells looking for leaks. Raven, with its laser-based sensors, can fly over an entire gas field in 40 minutes on a single charge and beam the results to a tablet computer read by an engineer on the ground.

Energy distribution

National Grid, Britain’s power and gas transmission operator has been experimenting with drones to inspect its installations. It has found drones useful when surveying operations near motorways, horses and in urban locations. Jeanette Unsworth, Press Officer National Grid, said in a phone interview, “In substations, drones could carry infra-red equipment to find hot spots on transformers and could also inspect equipment at height on substation sites, with no scaffolding or cherry pickers. Drones have improved inspection regimes and so better protected the operating efficiency of our network.”
Drones are now being used to inspect and assess the condition of assets (

Elsewhere, Chicago based gas utility Peoples Gas is experimenting with drones to find methane gas leaks along its 14,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipelines.


In the solar power sector, drones can play an important role in monitoring installations. Since drones equipped with sensors can quickly find solar panels that are longer producing power. For instance, drones have been used by Yes Energy Solutions to inspect its various solar panel installations located around the Yorkshire region of England for potential damage and obstructions to panels.

Roles in the construction phase of energy infrastructure

Drones are also employed to survey locations for possible energy installations. For example, Sun Power has used drones to survey a site for mapping the topography of the proposed 56 MW Gala Solar Farm in Oregon. From the data gathered, Sun Power used its software algorithms to find the best spot for each of the panels used on the Gala Solar Farm. Sun Power claims using drones and software took 90 percent less time than traditional surveying and design procedures.

Monitoring progress

For energy project manager’s, drones cannot only measure progress in real time but improve safety, save time and money. For instance, Sky Filming drones monitored progress on the construction of a biomass power station site in Kent England, on behalf of Danish construction company Burmeister & Wain A/S.

Sock pulling

In transmission line construction, the dangerous task of ‘sock-pulling‘ is the act of flying a strong and lightweight rope and attaching it to pylons. It is traditionally performed using helicopters in mountainous areas or by linemen climbing the pylons. Both these methods involve risk to both helicopter pilots and ground crews. The use of drones is eliminating this previously complex task, that consisted of several steps of reattaching the rope and it cuts the risk of injury for the linemen involved.

Sock Pulling Sharper Shape

In a bid, to improve linemen’s safety, a utility approached Sharper Shape, a developer of sensors systems and SkySkopes, a drone contractor to give a custom-made drone solution. They came up with a drone able to carry a transmission cable from one pylon to another and hand it to lineman. Matt Dunlevy, CEO SkySkopes observes, “This is a great proof of concept for drones because we proved that they can string both the outboard lines and the center line through the middle of the center phase of a pylon.”
Using drones is a constituent part of the energy industry’s adoption of new technology such as digitalization, as part of cutting operational costs, improving productivity and increasing the safety of the workforce. The multiplicity of tasks that drones can perform underpin their increasing use. It is estimated that the energy industry will spend a cumulative $4.47 billion between now and 2025 on drones, including hardware, software and drone services.

READ MORE: Drone is in the air by Peter Ward

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.