Standing in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on 8 June 2014 was a monumental day for me as an enthusiast for all things technology and innovation. Earlier our team at BP achieved a significant milestone as we performed the first approved commercial flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over US soil. Years of hard work paid off as we watched the Puma AE, a radio-controlled vehicle, weighing less than 15 pounds with a 7ft wingspan, take off over Alaska's frozen North Slope.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted BP and our partner AeroVironment, a California-based developer and operator of UAVs, approval to fly the Puma AE for aerial surveys in Alaska. It was a breakthrough for not only BP, but the entire US business sector. It opened the door to broader commercial use and acceptance of these innovative technologies.
An Industry Effort
Teamwork and collaboration are absolutely critical when launching technical projects. BP's unmanned aerial system (UAS) in Alaska required a cross-skilled team to successfully deliver a project this complex in such a remote part of the country. Before the project could take flight, we reached out to the required parties and made certain to involve the right skillsets from every sector. Expertise across several BP business functions, including regional and global aviation, geomatics, information technology and services, field operations, and indirect procurement, among others, was needed. In addition to our internal teams, the company worked very closely with third-party suppliers to bring the UAS to fruition, including AeroVironment for the UAVs and Esri for geographic information services.
Furthermore, federal regulations required BP to collaborate with an approved research facility to test the UAVs until licensing was granted by the FAA. BP partnered with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and funded the evaluation and testing of the new technology. The Geophysical Institute is one of six official FAA unmanned aircraft test sites in the US, and its congressionally-mandated test site conducted critical research into the certification and operational requirements necessary to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace. The university was selected to participate in the research due to the geographic and climatic diversity of the region. BP worked in tandem with the university for a number of years to perform various tests on how best to ensure the safe introduction of the advanced technology into US skies and ways to use the UAS to enhance business operations.
BP has placed a sharp focus on working as "one team" when approaching any project within the business. This was essential when the UAS project team was required to work cross-functionally not just within the organization, but with external groups, including academia and government bodies. We seamlessly integrated contract services with BP team members, as the UAS internal team viewed each of the external organizations as just another partner at the table rather than an outside third-party supplier. Another ingredient for success was the contagious enthusiasm of the project team. With dozens of scientists and engineers working together on a first-of-its-kind project, there was a strong desire to achieve something never done before.
Digitizing the Oilfield
UAS technology is proving invaluable at BP's Prudhoe Bay site, where floods, ice break-ups and ice floes constantly alter the region's topography, making travel on gravel roads difficult. This makes ground based monitoring methods difficult, costly and time consuming. Using UAVs and the latest light detection and ranging (LiDAR) equipment, which incorporates remote sensors that use laser pulses to collect 3D images, the team is able to create highly accurate, real-time models that help drivers stay on course along gravel roads, even in low-visibility, harsh conditions. The UAVs also help scan BP’s pipeline network to identify areas that need repair from frost damage. The system has improved the integrity of the company's operations by making them safer and more efficient.
In addition, the UAS project has enhanced BP's reputation as a technology leader both inside and outside of the oil and gas industry. It also provided a great example of BP's larger automation strategy, which aims to leverage digital technologies to help improve efficiency, reduce costs and reduce risk to the environment and its people. The UAS project’s success will play a large role in the company’s efforts toward digitizing the oilfield, and the project team’s next challenge will be scaling the system across the company in a sustainable way.
Driving Knowledge and Growing Opportunities
While the UAS project was intended to deliver immediate and measurable results, it also was a research and development experience for BP. Not only did the team deliver what BP Alaska needed to support the business, it also gained knowledge that can be shared with the oil and gas industry.
The UAS project would have literally been impossible without teamwork due to its complexity, reliance on multiple technical and business disciplines teams and the federal compliance and approval requirements. Thanks to the FAA's rigorous, safety-focused certification process for UAS, BP has launched a safer, better and more cost-effective solution for managing critical infrastructure and resources. Integrated into the company's routine operations, this new solution is now helping us manage our extensive Prudhoe Bay field operations in a way that enhances safety, protects the environment, improves productivity and accomplishes activities never before possible.
For more than 100 years, technology has underpinned BP's operations, and launching the UAS in Alaska is a significant milestone we are proud to add to this timeline. The company will continue to invest in technologies that we expect will make the most difference to our business and the energy industry, and we look toward more future successes enabled by teamwork.