State of the Art: Using Drones to Capture Offshore Oil and Gas Projects

By David Schonauer   Tuesday August 28, 2018

Why use a helicopter when a drone will do?

Robert Garvey, a commercial photographer based in Perth, Australia, who specializes in photographing offshore projects for oil companies, has over the past few years adopted an assortment of new tools for his work, shooting everything from stills and 4K video to time lapse and 360-degree imagery. He’s also been using a DJI Phantom Pro drone to capture remarkable views of offshore drilling rigs.

“Being located in Perth, in western Australia, I am in a hub for the oil and gas industries, serving all of Asia,” says Garvey, a PPD reader. “ As a documentary photographer I cover the entire scope of an oil and gas project — from the exploration phase through construction and commissioning. I have targeted this work and built a reputation among oil company engineers and project directors who have confidence in my abilities and professionalism. They know that I am not going to do anything stupid in a risky environment.”

Recently, Garvey was commissioned by the Cooper Energy company of Australia to photograph the first flow-back well test of a rig in the Bass Strait, off Australia's east coast.  

“A flow-back involves opening up the well and flowing the gas for up to 20 hours — the gas is ignited to burn it off and prevent it pooling around the platform. As it is, no-one is permitted on the rig deck during the well test because of the gas risks. The procedure tests the well pressure to prove the commercial viability of a gas field,” says Garvey.

“With offshore work, the biggest challenge is the weather,” says Garvey. “The week before I shot these images, the wind was blowing 70 knots in Bass Strait. One has to juggle the diary constantly.”

Traditionally, says Garney, photographing offshore oil and gas rigs involved the use of helicopters.

“But the helicopters available on charter to oil companies are primarily used for personnel transport, and they are big, cumbersome things, such as the Sikorsky S92 — same as the U.S. presidential helicopter — and are not suited to photography or video work,” he says. “I need to shoot with a harness and door open. There can be a lot of wind movement, and the pilots are often hesitant to go too low or close. In Bass Strait we had to wear full-immersion suits and carry compressed-air breathing apparatus, so picture someone in a sumo suit hanging out of a chopper trying to wield a camera in the freezing cold.”

The costs of operating a helicopter are high, notes Garvey, and that makes using a drone very attractive.

“Drones are flexible and efficient, low-risk and cost-effective,” he says. “But most important, the captured imagery is far superior. With a drone you get butter-smooth video footage; you can sweep seamlessly down to water level and launch at the optimal time.”

A still from Garvey’s video of the rig in Bass Strait

For his work in Bass Strait, Garvey had himself transferred from the oil platform to a Field Support Vessel (FSV). “All parties on the rig and FSV had to agree to a personnel transfer at sea, which involved me being swung across in a Billy Pugh — a ridged net — and landing on a moving deck. After that, I just had to wait for the light while hoping that the weather didn't change,” he says.

Garvery shot stills using a Canon 5D Mark IV, with lenses ranging from 16mm to 400mm. He used a Lensbaby tilt-shift lens for portraits, a Sony FDR-AX1 camcorder for 4K video and Go-Pro cams for time-lapse work.

Go here  to see more of his work from the Bass Strait, including a one-minute video.

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