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Oil companies look to drones as pressure to ship mounts

As other methods of shipment face challenges, oil-by-drone emerges as a new possibility

Apr 1, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff

Ice-and_oIldrone3

Test drone pictured over open water. Click to see larger image

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has quietly drafted new rules allowing oil companies to use drones to ship their products to market.

Sources say the move is in response to continued delays around several key pipeline projects and the public backlash in the country against oil-by-rail. Several oil executives are expressing optimism that the new rules will be in place by the fall, with test flights before Christmas.

In a document obtained by Alberta Venture, TSB researchers estimate that a drone can transport up to three barrels of oil at once. While that may not seem like a significant number, the document suggests that the ability of companies to fly the oil anywhere in North America – and the option of diverting a drone mid-flight to a better-paying customer – will allow the system to be economical. The TSB says each drone will be fitted with a parachute, which can be deployed remotely in the case of a malfunction.

A Suncor employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the company is already looking into acquiring drones for its own private testing in the lead-up to a possible announcement. “From what we’ve been told, this is going to happen,” the employee said. “We’re positioning ourselves to be the first ones in the sky once the rules are in place.”

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The idea of oil-by-drone isn’t popular outside the energy industry though, with Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema calling the news “shocking” this week.

“To be honest, I thought it was some kind of joke when it was first brought to my attention,” said a visibly angry Hudema. “Concerns about the potential environmental impact aside, what makes the TSB think they can make decisions like this without any kind of public consultation? It’s terribly dangerous and irresponsible.”

The Fraser Institute released a report over the weekend saying that Alberta is the most drone-friendly jurisdiction in North America, scoring 9.4 out of 10.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada could not be reached for comment.

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