The Sky’s the Limit

Image of Suncor employees on FPSO taken by a drone

When it comes to remote equipment inspections, the flare tip 107 metres up in the air on the Terra Nova floating, production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel, normally positioned in the Terra Nova field* - 350 kilometres offshore Newfoundland and Labrador - is probably as remote as it gets!

“Remote” has an added meaning in this case though, because Darrell Durdle and his maintenance team are able to monitor the flare remotely using flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or, as they’re more commonly known, drones.

In the past, the maintenance team maneuvered a helicopter near the hot flare tip with a photographer to take pictures or they set up scaffolding inside of oil cargo tanks to search for signs of fatigue during turnarounds. With the drones, the team can keep an eye on the flare, including watching for heat damage and any changes, from the safety of the deck of the vessel.

Darrell, a professional engineer by trade, and the FPSO maintenance team are always looking to improve maintenance processes to make them safer, more efficient and cost effective.

Darrell Durdle standing on the FPSO boat
Darrell Durdle and his team using drones to inspect the flare tip onboard Terra Nova.

“We started asking questions about how we could do this better, and it made sense to put a drone up there. It’s safer, we get much better picture quality, and its lower cost. It all added up to a good business case to try something new.” says Darrell.

And the inspections are pretty impressive. Darrell explains how easy it is to zoom in on the high-quality photos, offering a much clearer picture for maintenance teams to complete their inspections.

“Drones are becoming more mainstream and ultimately reduce risk, for both people and equipment, especially when working in a confined space or at heights,” he explains.

Darrell and the team acknowledge there are challenges around drone regulation and airspace rules because the technology is so new, but they agree on the potential for using this technology in other areas.

“I never would have imagined that coordinating remote-controlled airplanes would be in my job description,” he says with a laugh.

*The Terra Nova FPSO was disconnected from its offshore buoy in the Terra Nova field in June and has moved to a near-shore location. In the third quarter of 2020, the vessel will move to a quayside location where work will be completed to maintain the vessel and its operating systems while a team determines the life of field plan for the vessel.