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DRONES IN SERVICE: OILFIELD TRANSFORMATION FROM ABOVE

By Patrick C. Miller

October 25, 2017 – The unmanned systems branch of Textron Systems—a major defense contractor that also manufactures Cessna, Beechcraft, Bell Helicopters and Hawker civil aircraft—has been flying its Aerosonde UAS for oil and gas operations for the past five years in the Middle East. The company has also done work in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields. Textron Systems is currently testing a vertical takeoff and landing version of the Aerosonde that can be transported in a single pickup with a crew and ground control station.

“All the testing we’ve done, we’ve kept in mind flying pipelines with a small footprint,” says Dennis Racine, senior director of civil and commercial for Textron Systems. “You show up and fly your project with a crew—you’re in, you’re out. That vehicle, when it’s completed and ready for prime time in early 2018, will certainly be targeted toward oil and gas.”

Racine notes that because of Textron’s diversity, its unmanned systems division can call on the company’s expertise in civil aviation and geospatial solutions—which includes advanced analytics and visualization—as well as training facilities and command and control technologies for ground stations.

“We have Textron Support Solutions, which is a sister company,” Racine relates. “Support solutions is an entire organization made up of pilots and maintainers. I have the ability to put together a really good team with a lot of good products to support the customers’ challenges.
“We’re constantly working on new vehicles and new capabilities,” he adds. “I think unmanned aircraft are going to be a great tool for the oil and gas industry. We’ve positioned ourselves to be ready to work in that space.”

Insitu and Textron Systems started flying their UAS for U.S. military operations and both have logged more than a million hours of unmanned flight time. As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) slowly moves toward allowing commercial BVLOS operations for UAS in the national airspace, the companies are pursuing strategies to transition into the world of civilian business. The oil and gas industry is a market in which they see great potential and opportunity.

“In terms of capabilities, there are actually more similarities than differences between the commercial and military markets,” Vidal notes. “For commercial customers, we are targeting large corporations, major companies. They’ve got the same standards and expectations in terms of reliability of systems and platforms being dependable every day.”

The desire to work with companies highly experienced in UAS flight operations and an understanding of the military’s need for safety and security are also compatible with the needs of business, according to Vidal.

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