Avitas Systems to fly BVLOS drone inspections in Texas

By Patrick C. Miller | October 22, 2018

Oil and gas infrastructure in the Texas Permian Basin will be inspected by Boston-based Avitas Systems—a GE Venture—under approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use radar during commercial beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone operations.

“We received the FAA’s permission due to our systematic approach of using airspace management with a unique combination of proven UAS radar and communications technologies, which demonstrate that safety is our top priority,” said Michael Clatworthy, director of flight operations for Avitas Systems.

Avitas Systems will monitor Shell Oil Co. oil and gas infrastructure in Loving County, Texas, a development the company called the first step toward larger-scale BVLOS operations with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Avitas Systems received system design, safety, test, analysis and validation support from AiRXOS, another GE venture company.

“We worked closely with Shell Oil Co. for the use case, location and to show how this technology can improve industrial operational efficiency and safety,” said Brad Tomer, Avitas Systems interim CEO. “The FAA provided the necessary feedback to enable our team to design a system that safely meets the aviation regulatory requirements.”

Current FAA regulations require UAS to stay within range of the pilot’s vision. However, the agency granted Avitas Systems an exemption which enables it to use a radar system and enhanced operational procedures to provide an equivalent level of safety. The company said extended range of BVLOS operations allows for safer and more efficient monitoring of critical industrial infrastructure, including well pads separated by rough terrain in the Permian Basin.

According to Avitas Systems, better turnaround of inspection data leads to cost efficiency and faster facility repairs, compared to traditional methods, such as driving to individual inspection sites. When the Avitas Systems technology is combined with advanced analytics, it enables more accurate and efficient monitoring, detection and repair of leaks. It also reduces road safety-related risks by minimizing the number of miles driven each day.

Bruce Culpepper, U.S. country chair for Shell, noted that with the FAA’s approval and the assistance of Avitas Systems, the company can fly over a larger area of its Permian Basin operations to detect leaks and gather data to make more efficient operational decisions. This will result in improved environmental performance with less strain on road infrastructure, he said.

“Drones are already an integral part of Shell’s digital operations, with missions flown daily across our global footprint,” Culpepper said. “This is a tremendous achievement made possible through collaboration with the FAA, GE, Avitas Systems and Shell, and represents the future of drone-based surveillance technology in the U.S. Unconventionals fields of the future.”