This article originally appeared on http://www.marketwatch.com/story/exxon-is-using-drones—-to-scout-for-whales-2016-07-12.
[Editor’s Note: Exxon has been scouting for whales for 20 years using other methods.]
Drones are quickly becoming a game changer in the oil and gas industry, as the flying robots perform otherwise costly and dangerous inspections of pipelines, offshore rigs and refineries.
Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM, +1.30% is one of many oil majors now using drones in its oil- and gas-production operations (Shell Oil RDSB, -0.15% and BP BP, +0.30% are among the others), but it’s also finding new ways to make use of the technology.
Exxon this year successfully used drones along the Pacific coast off Santa Barbara, Calif., as part of an ongoing whale research project. Oil and gas companies are required in many parts of the world to undertake environmental impact assessments before conducting offshore operations.
“The detection allows us a greater level of awareness of where the animals are, and that helps with our mitigation strategies,” said Ashley Alemayehu, a spokeswoman for Exxon.
The energy giant, often a lightning rod for environmentalists, got into hot water in 2008 when nearly 100 whales were stranded in a shallow Madagascar lagoon and died. An independent review panel appointed by the International Whaling Commission found in 2013 that a sonar system used by an Exxon Mobil contractor was the most likely trigger in attracting the whales to the lagoon, according to the Washington Post.
Exxon has contested the study’s findings and has insisted that its practices don’t diminish marine wildlife populations, though it did end the use of sonar in certain locations. The company has professed a commitment to avoiding operations in sensitive areas such as migration corridors or breeding and feeding grounds.
“While there is no scientific evidence that mitigated seismic exploration causes any harm to marine wildlife, we still take extra precautions to ensure the sounds produced as part of our offshore operations have minimal interference with the communication between marine mammals,” Alemayehu said.
Exxon Mobil’s efforts to detect the presence of whales have been ongoing for 20 years, but employing drones in that effort is new. In the past, the gathering of research data relied on a web of satellites and employees with binoculars.
Drones have also tracked whales for noncommercial scientific purposes, not only locating and counting the whales but, according to a BBC report, monitoring their health and their behavior.
“Satellites are limited by their orbit,” said Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, which has operated drones for Exxon. “Drones have a lot more flexibility.”
Satellites also won’t work if obstructions, including clouds, block their view.
Exxon is currently using all three systems — satellites, human counters and drones — to gather and corroborate data.
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Over the course of two weeks in March, a team sent out four types of drones, primarily Lockheed Martin’s LMT, +0.61% Indago UAS, to gather data over the course of 50 drone flights.
“It makes sense to use more than one type of sensor or medium to provide different perspectives,” according to Gibbens. “Value is added [by] drones.”
Goldman Sachs analysts suggest that drones will not only simplify operations in the oil and gas industry easier but reduce costs as well.
A report released earlier this year by Goldman estimated that the market for pipeline inspections using drones could be worth $41 million globally, while the market for offshore rig and refinery inspections using drones was projected to reach $1.1 billion