Exxon Mobil has a set of drones, and it is using them to look for whales.
Drones have been a game-changer in the oil and gas industry, as the flying robots perform otherwise costly and dangerous inspections of pipelines, offshore rigs and refineries. Canadian dronemaker Aeryon Labs, which performs flare stack inspections using drones for Shell Oil Company, in December 2014 became the first to receive permission from the U.S. government to legally fly drones for the oil and gas industry. And while Exxon Mobil says it has also been using drones for similar purposes as its oil and gas competitors for the past several years, they aren’t stopping there.
Exxon this year successfully used drones along the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. to contribute to an ongoing a continuing research project of tracking whales. It’s typical for oil and gas companies to do environmental studies before conducting offshore operations.
“The detection allows us a greater level of awareness of where the animals are, and that helps with our mitigation strategies,” said Ashley Alemayehu, a spokesperson for Exxon.
The oil and gas giant got into hot water in 2008 when nearly 100 melon-headed whales got stranded in a shallow Madagascar lagoon and died. An independent review panel appointed by the International Whaling Commission found in 2013 that a sonar system used by an Exxon Mobil contractor was the most likely trigger for the stranding, according to The Washington Post.
Exxon Mobil contends the conclusion of the study study’s findings and says its operations don’t diminish marine wildlife populations, though it did change practices to stop use of sonar in certain places. The company still avoids operating in areas sensitive to marine wildlife, such as migration corridors or breeding and feeding grounds.
Exxon’s efforts to detect whales has been ongoing for 20 years now, but using drones is new. In the past, the research relied on a complicated mix of satellites and humans with binoculars to gather data.
“Satellites are limited by their orbit,” said Dyan Gibbens, CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, which is the company that operated the drones. “Drones have a lot more flexibility.”