Unmanned Aerial Systems Improve Emergency Oil Spill Response

A UAS team launches a UAS, which can be launched from the ground or by hand.

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.

Potential Uses of UASs in Emergency Oil Spill Response

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.

Next Steps?

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

  • What are the minimum UAS equipment requirements (platforms and sensors) depending on the scenario in an emergency spill response?
  • Updates to published reports should include not just descriptions of the platforms and sensors and the advantages and limitations but how the UASs can be applied to emergency oil spill response as surveillance tools in comparison with other surveillance tools.
  • Proof-of-concept demonstrations and exercises should be collaborative, and the outputs should be publicized so the oil and gas industry and OSROs avoid duplicating efforts. Together they should work toward identifying good practice to ensure UASs are used effectively and efficiently.

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.

Find paper SPE 190586 on the HSE Technical Discipline Page free for a limited time.

Find paper SPE 190586 on OnePetro.



Don't miss our latest HSE content, delivered to your inbox twice monthly. Sign up for the HSE Now newsletter.  If you are not logged in, you will receive a confirmation email that you will need to click on to confirm you want to receive the newsletter.





HSE Now is a source for news and technical information affecting the health, safety, security, environment, and social responsibility discipline of the upstream oil and gas industry.