Drone Systems International Provides Hurricane Relief at Shell Petrochemical Plant

To help with Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas, Drone Systems International (DSI) assisted Shell Deer Park Manufacturing Complex, one of the largest petrochemical plants in North America, with aerial inspections.

With more than 20 inches of rain and wind gusts up to 45 mph, DSI and Shell used DJI Phantom 4 drones to fly a total of 39 missions from Aug. 26-28 to collect 18.8 GB of data. That equals 7.6 miles of flight over 141 minutes.

Because the complex is considered critical infrastructure, federal regulations and Texas law restrict the sharing of photo or video data collected, notes DSI. However, the ability to inspect during the major rain event resulted in improved emergency response, the company explains. On Aug. 28, in order to continue with the damage assessment, DSI says it assisted Shell with obtaining a federal waiver within four hours to fly in the newly imposed temporary flight restriction over the entire Houston area.

Working with Shell’s emergency operations center (EOC), DSI helped customize the Phantom 4 drones to allow for better survivability in the rain; helped coordinate inspections; and coordinated with the EOC to create an ad hoc data processing, image catalog and distribution system. DSI personnel flew in the tropical storm conditions alongside Shell drone operators trained by DSI.

Of immediate concern during the storms were floating roof storage tanks; if the roofs of these tanks do not properly drain, excess water on top of them – heavier than the hydrocarbons below – can sink the roof, exposing the hydrocarbon to the atmosphere and possibly causing hazardous exposure to nearby areas.

Given the limited Shell personnel on-site during Harvey, DSI says it was critical for the crew to identify any potential problems in order to prioritize emergency response. Prior to DSI’s facilitating Shell’s in-house drone program – D.A.R.T. (Drone Aerial Response Team) – Shell employees needed to climb the stairs to every tank – a process taking days or weeks. However, DSI and the Shell D.A.R.T. were able to inspect the tanks spread over 1,500 acres within hours, as well as monitor tanks with suspected issues throughout the event. The drones were also able to catalog other images of the refinery for damage assessment.

DSI says it asked Shell how much money the company thinks it saved from the drone program; their reply was, “At the core of Shell Deer Park’s drone program is life safety – dollars saved is just a value-add.”

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