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Former fighter pilots bringing rigor to pipeline inspections

Midstream Integrity Services is managed by former fighter pilots and they bring military rigor to pipeline inspections

Drone-based pipeline inspections being flown with the same level of detail as a combat mission in enemy territory?  We needed to hear more.

Midstream Integrity Services is managed by former fighter pilots.  They consider themselves aviators first and they treat every mission with the same level of preparation as a combat sortie.

Q. I know your founders are former fighter pilots, how does this influence the way in which you approach your missions (pipeline inspections, etc…) with UAVs?

As professional aviators, we approach each UAV mission as if it were a combat mission. We outline measurable and attainable objectives based on client needs, identify threats, formulate a comprehensive game plan, and brief each member of the team on their roles and responsibilities. The execution phase of the mission is conducted with the professionalism and precision we would expect for any multi-ship manned aircraft mission.

Our experiences as fighter pilots also tells us that things will go wrong. A common saying is, “no plan survives initial contact.” With that in mind, we are intensely committed to contingency planning. We are very reluctant to use aircraft that do not have some level of redundancy.

We try not to use quad rotor aircraft for that reason. If we do have to use one, we put immense effort toward threat mitigation in the event of a propeller or motor failure.

Q. Do you perform “after action” types of meetings to apply continuous improvement principals to your work?

We believe in a “Plan, Brief, Execute, Debrief” construct for our missions. A majority of the learning happens in the debrief, especially during training. There is no “rank”, and objective analysis is conducted to ensure the appropriate root causes are identified and fixes applied. Everyone understands that the objective is constructive criticism. The pilot in command is always humble and quick to admit mistakes for the benefit of team learning. If there is ever a “crash” a report is written by the PIC to address key issues and identify a root cause. From there, that information becomes mandatory reading for the rest of the pilots and visual observers to ensure everyone is armed with the knowledge needed to prevent future incidents.

Q. It sounds like you have a fairly rigorous training program, is that something you put in place yourself or based upon working with other schools?

Our training program is self-developed, but it is based on years of experience in the U.S Air Force training young men and women to fly some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. We are proud to have a team of expert instructor pilots who have been awarded some of the most coveted awards for outstanding flight instruction. We leverage that knowledge base to ensure we have the highest level of training for our crews.

Our training involves multiple “emergency procedure” scenarios because (as every professional pilot knows) good decisions about what to do when the world is falling apart around you are rarely made in the heat of the moment. Rather, they are made at “zero knots and one-G” where you can contemplate your moves and make a better decision. We also want our pilots to demonstrate solid decision making under stress, which is why we recruit former military pilots with thousands of hours of flight time to pilot our aircraft.

Q. We have our list of UAV training programs, UAS Training Programs, are their others we should add to our list?

I really like the free videos and materials available at Troy Built Models. They have very good information and it has a feel of professional aviation. We have not taken part in their formal training classes, but I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen from them and they were responsive to questions I asked. For general aviation knowledge, Sporty’s Pilot Shop has a fantastic line of pilot training products that every unmanned aircraft pilot could learn a lot from in their pursuit of a sport pilot license or private pilot license.

Q. As experienced pilots, what advice would you give to new UAV operators in regards to learning to safely, and effectively, operate their UAVs?

We are very big proponents of the FAA regulations requiring an airman certificate for commercial operations and we would like to see some level of education for all UAV operations. We hold commercial pilot certificates and many of our pilots are certified airline transport pilots. Many people in the UAV community say that there is no parallel between manned flight and UAV flight, but we strongly disagree. While I’ll concede that the “stick and rudder” skills are not the same, the knowledge of airspace integration, air traffic control communications, and emergency planning that come with formal training are absolutely critical. UAV pilots need to know where their aircraft is (in terms of airspace) at all times.

Use of sectional charts, identification of special use airspace, and identification of military training routes are necessary skills to comply with the COA that the FAA issues with at section 333 exemption, and for good reason. For example, I was recently flying a low level route in my military aircraft at 500’ AGL at about 450 knots ground speed. I flew over a farmer’s orchard and thought to myself, “That’s a prime area for an agricultural drone.” Then I thought, “How would I ever know they were there?” Unless the UAV pilot complied with the FAA rules to issue a notice to airman (NOTAM) or contacted the scheduling agency of the low level route, I wouldn’t. (Both of those are required by the FAA’s blanket COA.) As a pilot of a manned tactical aircraft I’ve personally had several encounters with unmanned aircraft that were in a place I didn’t expect and it was an eye-opening (an infuriating) experience each time.

Skyvector.com is a great free resource for UAV pilots to view aeronautical charts and do some pre mission planning.

Q. What kind of drones do you fly in your pipeline inspections? What made these right for your business?

Midstream Integrity Services (MIS) is currently authorized to fly DJI S1000, S900, Phantom 2, and a custom octorotor that we built ourselves. The S900 and S1000 are a fit for us because they can carry a heavy load and also have demonstrated the ability to fly in the event of an engine failure. We fly with the lightest camera practical (a GoPro Hero 4) so that we can add additional sensors. One of the services we offer is a methane detection capability and that sensor adds significant weight. We are evaluating other longer endurance multirotor platforms and have developed our own octorotor design that has been flight tested at 53 minutes on one charge with a normal payload!

Q. What changes to FAA regulations, and/or drone technology, are you hoping to see to enable you to more effectively deliver services to your customers?

We are looking forward to beyond line of sight (BLOS) advancements which will significantly improve our business model for pipeline monitoring. The FAA line of sight regulations prevent us from harnessing the full capability of the aircraft. Advancements in sense-and-avoid deconfliction and implementation of procedural aircraft deconfliction will open many doors, particularly for the oil and gas industry. We also look forward to improvements in hardware and software that will allow for better, more reliable mission planning and execution.

Q. What is the impact of UAVs on the oil and gas industry?

The impact of UAV technology to our customers is significant. Pipeline safety cannot be understated and we have a more cost effective solution. Our clients want to know everything they can about their pipelines and we provide a platform that collects multiple sources of information and provides an analytical report for actionable results. There are hundreds of thousands of pipelines in the US that require monitoring and UAVs will play an important role in the near future.

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