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HEX/Furie offshore drone is first of its kind

Jason Williams removes containers filled with water from a drone at Furie Operating Alaska’s central processing facility on Wednesday, July 7, 2024 in Nikiski, Alaska.
Ashlyn O'Hara
Jason Williams removes containers filled with water from a drone at Furie Operating Alaska’s central processing facility on Wednesday, July 7, 2024 in Nikiski, Alaska.

One of Cook Inlet’s smaller oil and gas companies successfully piloted a drone flight on Wednesday. Project leaders say incorporating the technology into the company’s regular operations could help streamline their workflow and pave the way for other companies to do the same.

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of around 30 people gather at Furie Operating Alaska’s central processing facility in Nikiski. Standing behind a boundary of orange traffic cones, they watch a 55-pound drone lift off the ground and fly toward Julius R. That’s the name of one of Furie’s offshore oil platforms.

After takeoff, the drone follows Furie’s natural gas pipeline for about 15 miles to the platform. Once there, it’s loaded down with water samples and heads back to Nikiski.

Wednesday’s flight was Cook Inlet’s first ever beyond visual line of sight drone flight. The project also holds the FAA’s first waiver in the United States for a flight to and from an offshore platform. It’s the culmination of three years of work by multiple groups in Alaska.

J.R. Ancheta is a project manager for the nationally-recognized Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Last year, the program received federal approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to oversee drone flights by other organizations.

“So once we prove to them that this concept is viable, then we can transition to having Furie do this operation using a drone,” he said. “And so today, will be actually the first commercial drone operation for supporting the oil and gas industry for today’s flight. So it’s really exciting.”

Once the drone’s in the air, it’s monitored remotely by pilots on either end of the route. In Nikiski, Pilot Jason Williams talks with his counterpart on the platform while monitoring the drone’s flight path. A downward-facing camera attached to the drone also streams live footage of Cook Inlet.

Furie is required by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to regularly submit water samples for testing. John Hendrix is the president and CEO of HEX Cook Inlet LLC, which acquired Furie in 2021. He said Wednesday the company currently moves those water samples between the platform and its processing facility via a vacuum tube or helicopter.

“We had an immediate need for it, so why not try to use it here, to embed this technology and get something off the ground. We thought two years ago, we'd be doing this flight.”

Roughly an hour after the drone lifted off from Furie’s processing facility, attendees point toward a speck in the sky. As the speck gets bigger, the drone comes into better focus and the sound of its propellers gets louder.

Strapped to the underside of the aircraft are two jugs of water. They aren’t actual water samples for Furie, but project stakeholders hope to change that soon. In many ways, the flight was a first. But if project leads get their way, it definitely won’t be the last.

Prior to joining KDLL's news team in May 2024, O'Hara spent nearly four years reporting for the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai. Before that, she was a freelance reporter for The New York Times, a statehouse reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach her at aohara@kdll.org