In the oil-rich fields of Alaska’s North Slope, gas flares burn constantly, occasionally bursting into fireballs two stories tall. It’s a safety feature of BP’s operation: burning off excess gas from drilling. Unless the facility is shut down—which costs BP millions—carrying out a detailed examination of those nozzles is out of the question. Which explains why the operation is inspected only once a year at the most.
At least, that was the schedule until November 2011. As an experiment, BP brought in Greg Walker to fly a 2.5-pound Aeryon Scout quadrotor drone to examine the flares between inspections. With the Scout, Walker—manager of the Poker Flat Research Range for the University of Alaska Fairbanks—was able to spot a crack in one of the nozzles while it was still burning. Doing the repair required a shutdown, but BP was able to speed up the process and save money by ordering the parts ahead of time.