Once the preserve of the military, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) now have a wide range of civil applications, including search and rescue, offshore oil and gas platform inspections, delivery of supplies to remote regions, and aerial surveillance of crops. The oil and gas industry recognized the value of UASs a few years ago, and now the industry and oil-spill-response organizations (OSROs) around the world are looking at ways to use UAS technology to have “eyes in the sky” to support spill responses and explore the safety, efficiency, and cost benefits.
UASs have already been used by industry to monitor oil fields and pipelines, particularly in areas with very few nearby residents and little air traffic. Geographical areas such as those pose few logistical or safety hazards and provide a relatively risk-free way of exploring the feasibility of more widespread use. UASs are also being used by the oil and gas industry to mitigate potential risks to employees and contractors. Now, the industry, OSROs, and commercial organizations are looking at ways UASs can be used in emergency oil spill response.
This paper presents two case studies—a shoreline application of rotary UASs to improve emergency oil spill response and the offshore application of UASs to improve emergency oil spill response.
With all the potential options for use, further research needs to be completed to define how UASs can be most effectively used during an emergency oil spill response (e.g., proving efficiency, improving safety, and decreasing costs). Points for consideration should include
Industry and OSROs also need to be mindful that UASs are another tool in the toolbox and not the complete solution—there will be spill scenarios where they add value and other scenarios where, if applied, they could distract and be an unnecessary cost. Other surveillance tools should always be considered [e.g., satellites, aircraft, aerostats (tethered helium balloons)], and the advantages and limitations should be considered based on the spill response scenario.
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