Drones, a generic term for unmanned aircraft, have been utilized in military applications for decades. More recently, however, advances in drone technology and construction have made the devices more accessible. These advances and increased accessibility have allowed more commercial and industrial applications to take off. For example, certain retailers are considering ways to efficiently use drones to make residential deliveries, and drones can help developers plan and manage construction projects and monitor progress.
Drones as HSE Compliance Tools
One application for which drones may be particularly (and increasingly) useful is health, safety, and environmental (HSE) compliance. Petrochemical complexes and refineries, for example, are vast and complicated operations subject to myriad HSE requirements. Many pieces of equipment and processes spread out across a facility require environmental monitoring and inspection pursuant to those HSE requirements, but are located in hard-to-access areas. Indeed, leak detection and repair (LDAR) requirements may apply to a flange or valve on a pipe rack 30 feet off the ground. Rather than having a worker undertake the necessary prerequisites to safely conduct monitoring at that equipment, a drone could be deployed instead. Likewise, a drone could be deployed in response to a process safety incident to assess the scene (e.g. identify the source of the release, evaluate emissions) and facilitate a safer response.
In a similar way, drones may help petrochemical facilities and refineries comply with site security regulations. Laws like the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) and the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) generally require subject facilities to implement plans and protocols to ensure site security. These plans might involve surveillance at site boundaries or around critical infrastructure, and drones may provide an efficient way to perform such surveillance.
The Regulatory Framework
Note that the types of drones most likely to be used for HSE compliance are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and may be regulated by state and local laws as well. At the federal level, FAA regulations (14 CFR Part 107) apply to “unmanned aircraft” and “small unmanned aircraft systems” (Small UASs), which encompass unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds including their communication and control components. Small UASs must be registered with the FAA prior to deployment, and their operators must generally obtain a remote pilot certification in order to fly the devices. The regulations also govern other aspects of Small UAS operation including when (time of day) and how high the devices may fly. Before deploying a drone, facilities should consult with legal counsel and evaluate the federal, state, and local regulations that apply to their drone operations.
Environmental agencies have also utilized drone technology and expressed interest in its utility for compliance monitoring. For example, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board utilizes drones for site examination when conducting investigations of chemical releases at facilities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), likewise, has published information about the role of drones in sampling and emissions monitoring. In March 2020, the EPA issued a grant of $320,000 to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that in part would be used to fund drone-based methane detectors to estimate emissions from specific equipment used in natural gas development.
Advances in drone technology and accessibility to the devices make them increasingly useful and versatile tools, especially for HSE compliance. The HSE compliance applications for drones outlined above offer just a glimpse of their utility. Therefore, companies with HSE compliance obligations should seriously consider the various uses for drones at their facilities. This is especially true during a global health pandemic when social-distancing and efficient remote work are more important than ever.