Top Technology Trends: Using Exploratory Drones in the Oil and Gas Industry


exploratory drones help the oil and gas industry
Today, unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, are being used to support research, development, and operations in the oil and gas industry. Image Credit: Flickr user Richard Unten

Over the past few years, drones have been making an appearance in a wide range of industries, and the oil and gas industry is no exception. Research into the potential of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) began over a decade ago, but efforts were initially limited by costs and legal regulations. Then, in 2014, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorized the first request for the commercial operation of a UAV over land in the United States, giving BP the chance to use a radio-controlled drone to assist with operations at the Prudhoe Bay oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope.1

Since then, opportunities to use drones in the oil and gas industry have continued to expand, both within the United States and in other locations around the world.  As of 2017, the use of drones is considered to be one of the top technology trends in the industry.2

Using a drone to conduct exploratory research, assess existing equipment and monitor operations can generate a massive amount of useful data. The real challenge for oil and gas companies is to efficiently organize this data and transfer it to the researchers and decision-makers who need it. Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are ideally suited to the task, supporting data accessibility and collaboration between researchers as data collected by drones is used to advance the goals of the company.

Possible Applications of Drone Technology in the Oil and Gas Industry

There are a variety of ways in which drone technology can be applied within the oil and gas industry, including the following:

  • Initial site evaluation. More opportunities for oil and gas exploration are opening up around the world, including both on-land and offshore drilling sites. Today’s drones are equipped with high-quality photography and video equipment, making it possible for researchers to get an up-close look at potential drilling sites without actually traveling to the proposed site.
  • Topographical mapping. Drones can be equipped with laser scanners and GPS equipment for 3D mapping purposes. Laser scanners generate data by emitting a series of pulses of light, and then recording the time delay between light transmission and reception. This data can be used to accurately determine an object’s shape and elevation. At the same time, GPS technology can create a set of data points that correspond to each object. Thus, laser data and GPS information can be integrated to construct 3D maps of potential drilling sites that include a wide range of relevant landmarks–from mountains, glaciers and rivers to buildings, railways and airports.
  • Checking pipelines. Maintaining oil and gas pipeline integrity is essential, so meticulous pipeline checks are a non-negotiable for oil and gas companies. In the past, a thorough check of a three-kilometer stretch of pipeline required up to a week of human labor. With a drone, scanning the same section of pipeline can take as little as thirty minutes.  
  • Evaluating equipment for damage. While checking pipelines is time-consuming, assessing vertical structures for damage presents an even more significant obstacle for oil and gas companies. Typically, flare stacks and cooling structures have to be shut down before they can be safely evaluated by a human. However, today’s drones can get within 25 to 30 feet of these structures without interfering with operations–close enough for drones to take high-definition pictures that can highlight maintenance needs.

No matter how drones are being used, data management presents a major challenge, which is why electronic lab notebooks are an ideal tool for oil and gas companies that use drones. Electronic lab notebooks support real-time data transfer, so the information collected by the drone can be in the hands of the researchers and decision-makers who need it within a matter of seconds. At the same time, they make it easy for researchers to quickly access data sets that were collected in past drone flights, making it possible to quickly compare potential drilling sites or track the state of a pipeline over time.

Moreover, for companies that are using drones for topographical mapping purposes, electronic lab notebooks can be integrated with modeling and simulations software. This can reduce the amount of time that would otherwise be wasted on data transcription, and it can cut down on the likelihood of mistakes during the data transfer process.

Using Different Types of Drones for Oil and Gas Research and Operations

There are two types of drones that may be used to support oil and gas research and operations: long-range drones and short-range drones. Long-range drones are primarily used for initial site evaluation and topographical mapping. For long-range flights, the flight route, speed and altitude must be programmed in advance. When electronic lab notebooks are used to calculate and plan out the flight path for a long-range drone, researchers from multiple departments can access the proposal and weigh in on the plan beforehand so that they get the information they need. This can help reduce wasted expenditures on multiple flights.

In contrast, short-term drone flights that are used for the evaluation of vertical equipment, flat roofs and electric wires are typically operated manually from the ground. Again, electronic lab notebooks can come in handy for operators who are looking to improve drone operation procedures in the future. For instance, an operator may record an ideal height and angle to take a picture of a specific structure, and storing that information in an electronic lab notebook will ensure that it is easily accessible to drone operators during future flights.

Overall, as drone technology advances, data management methods must keep up. BIOVIA Electronic Lab Notebooks offer everything that oil and gas companies need when using drones for research, development, and operations efforts. Contact us today for more information!

  1.  “Drones provide BP with eyes in the skies,” 13 November 2014,
  2. “The 4 IT trend fueling the oil and gas industry in 2017,” 10 January 2017,