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Solar-powered drones could be the future of energy infrastructure protection. This technolgy will be able to significantly reduce risks for company employees

Terrorist attacks have become a grisly feature of our day and time. As a result, many industries and companies that operate in hostile environments have turned to technology to minimize the threat. But for many years the field of critical energy infrastructure protection has in most regards been exempt from any sweeping innovations.
However, this is about to change. Solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles, or simply drones, have the capacity to be a game changer technology in the protection of critical energy infrastructure. They can enhance security capabilities, decrease operational costs and greatly reduce the risks to which employees of companies are exposed.

The most at risk infrastructure

Critical energy infrastructure, which could be broadly defined as facilities and services without which the functioning of a society would be greatly impaired, lies at the heart of the ever-more interconnected and interdependent global economy. Oil and gas infrastructure is particularly vulnerable in this regard because in contrast to electricity infrastructure, it is much less diversified and the disruption of supplies in one part of the globe can have devastating consequences in others. Moreover, oil and gas, respectively, account for approximately 40 and 15% of the world’s total energy supply.
Given the significance of oil and gas infrastructure, it is hardly surprising that attacks against them have been sharply on the rise. For instance, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, during the early to mid-1990s, terrorist attacks on oil and gas infrastructure accounted for around 2.5% of all attacks, whereas in 2013 this number rose to around 23%. States like Iraq, Colombia, Nigeria, Algeria and Pakistan have particularly been affected by this surge.
The ways how critical energy infrastructure can be protected are numerous, yet they are not always very effective. For the most part, efforts of protecting critical energy infrastructure were limited either to the enhancement of overall resilience or the augmentation of intelligence capabilities, or a combination of both. Whereas the former would help to ensure alternative supply routes, backups and fuel switches, the latter would focus on improving the understanding of terrorist strategies, motives and movement patterns. Alternatively, one could simply fortify extraction points, compressor stations and other high profile parts of the supply chain by building fences around them, or if necessary, even hiring heavily armed security personnel. But all of these methods are rarely effective at protecting other critical energy infrastructure parts like pipelines.
In general, oil and gas pipelines are made out of relatively soft materials and as result they are often the target of choice for many terrorist attacks. True, it is possible to hide oil and gas pipelines beneath the ground, thus reducing the odds of them being sabotaged or targeted by explosives, but this is a fairly impractical and very costly solution when pipelines stretch thousands of kilometres, often through arid or mountainous terrain.

A technology to refine

Thanks to a multitude of technological advances that have occurred over the past decade, drones have gradually become an essential piece of machinery used by many. Long gone are the days when drones were exclusively associated with such splendours of military engineering like the Global Hawk with a price tag of over $220 million per unit. Nowadays, photographers, engineers, cartographers and everyone who has an interest can become a proud owner of a drone.
However, even if the cost of most drones has decreased considerably, up until recently their applicability for the critical energy infrastructure protection sector was relatively low. The explanation for this is fairly straightforward – they lacked power. Most small supermarket drones can stay airborne for just over 20-30 minutes and most large commercial drones can barely reach more than a couple of hours of continuous flight. The absence of a reliable source of power meant that even the best commercially available drones required an entire team of dedicated engineers who would not only control the drone, but also frequently charge its batteries. In other words, this technological flaw prohibited drones from being actively utilized for the protection of oil and gas pipelines, and other critical energy structures.

Solar energy and its help

Over the last couple of years there have been significant breakthroughs in solar power storage technology, which managed to increase the conversion rate of sunlight into electricity from around 15% to over 30%. This, in turn, marked the rise of high-tech drones, exclusively powered by the sun.
One of such drones is the Airbus manufactured Zephyr model, which has managed to stay airborne for 14 uninterrupted days or almost 340 hours. Despite weighing less than an average person, this drone can be equipped with a myriad of high-tech sensors, allowing it to provide formidable surveillance capabilities for its users. For instance, it can be equipped with advanced Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors, which uses laser pulses to collect high-resolution topographical data from the ground below. Also, it has the capacity to receive accurate real-time visual data from the ground – down to 15cm resolution – using small, lightweight cameras. Drones like this would be ideally suited for monitoring oil and gas pipelines that stretch thousands of kilometres in deserts or vast plains of land.
More importantly, with a cruising altitude of over 20,000 meters, drones like Zephyr have a tremendous field of vision and cannot be easily detected by saboteurs or terrorists. As a result, actions against potential perpetrations could be taken immediately after suspicious activities have been observed from above. This, in turn, would also greatly reduce the risks to which the company’s employees are exposed, because the drones could provide early warning of pending attacks.

Evolving method

However, despite all of the merits of solar-powered drones, there are still some issues that need to be addressed. First of all, there is the problem with cruising altitudes, because most current solar-powered drones fly relatively high. Although this is great for large-scale monitoring purposes, it can be somewhat of a drawback if there is a need to fly lower in order to scan for potential oil or gas leakages. Moreover, drones that would aspire to fly at lower altitudes need to be built from sturdier materials so that they could withstand desert storms or strong winds. Solara 50 - Google’s flagship solar-powered drone project - was recently scrapped and abandoned by the company because, among other things, the model suffered from wing failures.
Finally, there is also the problem of energy storage, particularly if a drone would be flying at lower than stratospheric levels. The sunlight-to-electricity conversion rate is to date still not effective enough to allow drones to continuously fly at altitudes where sunlight would occasionally be blocked by cloudy weather.
Regardless of all these issues, it is only a matter of time until the drone industry will have successfully addressed these obstacles. With the drone market estimated to reach $127 billion in 2020, the competition between companies is likely to become fiercer than ever before. In addition to Airbus, there are dozens of other companies, like Facebook or NASA, to name a few, which are trying to harness the power of the sun and create even more technologically sophisticated drones. As a result, it is fairly safe to assume that the industry’s future is as sunny as it gets.
In sum, at a time when terrorist attacks against oil and gas infrastructure is steadily on the rise, solar-powered drones can provide a definite solution to most companies that operate in politically unstable areas. These drones can not only allow companies to protect their critical energy infrastructure at a much lower cost, but also at a much greater efficiency rate. Most importantly, they can prove to be instrumental in protecting the most important asset every company has – its dedicated staff.

*The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization