The top of the Nyhamna plant in Norway
Inspectors on the ground can still get a good view of the top of the Nyhamna plant in Norway, all thanks to an ROAV

Inspecting the flaring stack at the Ormen Lange gas processing plant in Norway used to be a hazardous and lengthy job. Engineers had to check for faults by abseiling down the 70 metre-tall tower, forcing the plant to shut down for almost two weeks.

Today, we use remotely operated aerial vehicles (ROAVs) – often called “drones” – to examine some of Europe’s biggest energy plants. The operation takes just a few hours, the plant keeps running and the engineers are kept safe.

Shell is increasingly using ROAVs to inspect the condition of its oil and gas facilities in hard to reach places, like a tall tower or the underbelly of an offshore oil rig, because it’s safer and more efficient than sending people.

These multi-rotor or winged aircraft are equipped with a growing array of cameras and sensors. They can quickly and thoroughly examine parts of facilities that engineers would need to erect scaffolding, or abseil down, to see. GPS and gyroscopes can help keep them steady in windy locations, and allow operators to pre-program multiple shooting positions in the air.

Bacton gas terminal
How a remote-controlled aerial vehicle saw the Bacton gas terminal in the UK as it flew around two chimneys

Faster and safer

One team at the Bacton import terminal on the east coast of England – a crucial supply point for natural gas into the UK – has used a drone equipped with a gas sensor to check the condition of the facility. Using an ROAV enabled one of the UK’s most important gas supply sites to stay fully operational throughout.

“Recent inspections at Bacton reinforced our confidence in using ROAV technology. It again proved to be faster, safer and more economical than more conventional high-level access methods,” inspection specialist Mark Bailey said.

ROAVs can usually do their inspections without facilities shutting down, keeping energy production flowing.

Inspecting facilities while they are still running means that infra-red cameras onboard can capture detailed, live heat images from hot equipment high above the ground – insights that would be unavailable if the plant was shut down.

Easier access to otherwise tricky-to-see areas, like the underside of an offshore rig or the tip of a tall refinery stack, also means we can do inspections more often, which helps further ensure safe plant performance while keeping employees out of harm’s way.

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