Texas Railroad Commission to use Drones

The Railroad Commission (RRC) of Texas has launched a statewide drone inspection program designed to help inspectors quickly inspect oil and gas sites that are made inaccessible during emergencies.

RRC Executive Director Wei Wang says that the program has massive potential to enable safer and faster data gathering in critical situations, which could be a big win for residents and the environment.

What counts as an “emergency?”

The RRC’s definition for emergencies requiring drone use is broad and includes hazardous leaks and spills, as well as fires, flooding, and other natural disasters – pretty much anything that makes a site inaccessible.

And, as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps Texas, RRC representatives have also stated that drones may supplement or substitute traditional inspections to reduce inspectors’ risk of infection.

How much action have they gotten so far?

The RRC drone inspection team’s first emergency response was on April 28, following reports of a flood in Reeves County, west of Midland.

Due to the flooding, the road to the affected area was underwater, drone data gathering was the safest and most efficient option. And, at the end of May, the RCC performed a drone inspection near Portland, Tx. to confirm that a two-mile portion of a nearby creek didn’t have any signs of impact from oil or gas waste.

How big is the Texas Railroad Commission drone program?

Not a lot has been released about the program.

But, what we do know is that it consists of eight drones, with a total of 19 inspectors in the agency’s oil and gas and surface mining and reclamation divisions have received remote pilot certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Which drone platforms are being used?

According to the RCC, six DJI Mavic 2 Dual Enterprise Edition drones and two Mavic 2 Enterprise Zoom drones are being operated using the DroneSense platform.

Have there been any privacy concerns?

Nothing notable so far.

But, the RRC has been reminding landowners and oil companies that their inspectors use drones only for statutorily-authorized purposes, and that they can be identified as RCC inspectors by white vehicles that are marked with the agency’s logo and Texas exempt license plates.

Inspectors also carry Railroad Commission identification cards that landowners can verify by calling district offices.

Where is the program headed?

The future of drone use by the RRC will be heavily influenced by who gets elected to be the RRC’s next commissioners (there are three of them).

Primary winner Chrysta Castañeda says that the RRC needs to improve emissions accountability in the oil and gas industry and that, if elected commissioner, she would institute a program whereby drones outfitted with infrared cameras would be deployed to gather data on companies’ methane and fugitive emissions.

The agency would hold violators accountable, and publish all findings online for public access. It’s too early to tell how likely this program is to be implemented, but it’s certainly a sign that important stakeholders are thinking about expanding the ways that drone technology is used within the energy and government sectors.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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