Unidentified drone sightings increase security concerns on offshore facilities
Smruthi Nadig explores how the Petroleum Safety Authority of Norway has urged oil companies to be more cautious of unidentified drones.
ecent developments in imaging and sensing technologies allow for the use of drones in various contexts. They are frequently used for critical infrastructure inspection and predictive maintenance.
A single drone could gather more data and more precise information than several cameras positioned all over a particular area. The use of drones by businesses can provide complete awareness when combined with data from stationary cameras. For remote monitoring and surveillance, drones are primarily used in the oil and gas sector, including infrastructure, equipment, tankers and trucks and other assets.
According to GlobalData research, drones can provide a 360-degree view for monitoring field operations. In addition, they can offer encroachment detection and monitor the development of facilities under construction. Oil and gas companies can inspect unmanned production platforms using drones and remote monitoring.
Drones are particularly useful in industrial accidents or natural disasters, and oil spills and fire incidents can also be mapped using real-time drone imagery and video analytics. However, growing tensions across the European oil and gas industry means that drones, and other advanced technologies, could be deployed in efforts to continue this conflict.
Unidentified drone activities
Despite this potential, the increase in drone usage has posed a number of new challenges for oil and gas companies. Operator companies on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) recently issued warnings about several sightings of unidentified drones and aircraft near offshore installations.
The Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority urged oil companies and vessel owners to exercise greater caution after receiving numerous reports of unidentified drones flying near oil and gas installations off the coast of Norway.
The alert was issued after the oil and gas company Equinor revealed last month that it had alerted authorities to sightings of drones of unknown origin flying close to some of its platforms.
On 23 September, Petroleumstilsynet, the Norwegian governmental supervisory authority, said: "Operator companies on the NCS have recently given warnings [and] notifications of many observations concerning unidentified drones [and] aircraft close to offshore installations."
Operator companies on the NCS have recently given warnings and notifications of many observations concerning unidentified drones and aircraft close to offshore installations.
The head of Norway’s police directorate, Benedicte Bjoernland, told the newspaper VG that sensors implemented following the leaks detected in Russian gas pipelines identified the drones.
European countries discovered two "unexplained" leaks in two Russian gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea near Sweden and Denmark. The Danish Energy Agency announced the leak from the Nord Steam 2 pipeline in Danish Baltic sea waters on 26 September. The leak could cause a hazard to naval traffic. The Danish Maritime Authority issued a navigational warning and imposed a five-nautical-mile prohibitive zone.
According to the newspaper, a drone was spotted 50 meters away from Equinor's Heidrun platform in the North Sea on September 20, breaching the 500-meter security perimeter. The sensors were put in place to detect unauthorised actors in the area, and dissuade anyone attempting to work in the area.
One of the recent sightings of an unidentified drone, according to the local newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad, took place close to the Gina Krog field. It is located 30 kilometres from the Sleipner field and 230 kilometres from Stavanger.
The Norwegian Government authorised Gina Krog as one of its offshore fields to increase production in July. This was one of the ways Norway met with increased demand for energy in Western Europe due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.
Following these security concerns, Norway decided to deploy its military to guard its oil and gas installations against potential sabotage. Energy markets were in turmoil, and security concerns are at an all-time high due to gas leaks caused by suspected sabotage found on the Nord Stream pipelines on 27 September.
In response to the Nord Stream pipelines leaks, UK secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, said: “This week we saw the mysterious damage inflicted to the Nord Stream pipeline, and it should remind us all of how fragile our economy and infrastructure is to such hybrid attacks.”
This week we saw the mysterious damage inflicted to the Nord Stream pipeline, and it should remind us all of how fragile our economy and infrastructure is to such hybrid attacks.
Wallace continued: “Russia makes no secret of its ability to target such infrastructure, and it’s for that reason I can announce we have recently committed to two specialist ships with the capability to keep our cables and pipelines safe.”
He said that the first multi-role survey ship for seabed warfare was scheduled for purchase by the end of this year, fully equipped in the UK, and operational by the end of next year. Another ship would be built in the UK to cover the country’s “vulnerabilities.”
Every platform on the continental shelf is enclosed by a safety zone that typically stretches 500 meters from the facility and an additional 500 meters above its highest point. Unauthorised vessels and aircraft are not permitted to operate in the zone, and violating these zones "may be punishable by law," according to Petroleumstilsynet.
“Acts of sabotage”
The potential for security risks, and for drones to be used in such efforts, is particularly significant considering the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has created a rift between Russia and much of its former trading partners in Western Europe.
According to Reuters, the EU believes the gas leaks on Russia's undersea pipelines to Europe were sabotaged. The EU has threatened a strong retaliation if its energy infrastructure is intentionally damaged.
On 3 October, the Norwegian military announced that it had sent soldiers to help guard onshore oil and gas processing facilities. It was part of a larger effort to increase security amid suspicions that sabotage was to blame for leaks in the Nord Stream gas pipelines the week prior.
Terje Aasland, Norway's minister of petroleum and energy, stated: "Based on the information we have so far, several factors indicate acts of sabotage."
National and international laws both apply to cables and pipelines. International waters, where responsibility is hazily divided between businesses and the government, do, however, have security gaps.
According to legal expert Claudio Bozzi, unidentified leaks give cable system operators "little incentive to invest in a security or cooperate with the government, increasing their vulnerability to attack."
Unidentified leaks give cable system operators ‘little incentive to invest in a security or cooperate with the government, increasing their vulnerability to attack’.
A separate study by the EU parliament has also noted that some member states and cable companies engage in surveillance, but there is no organised data collection or threat tracking.
Tor Ivar Stroemmen, a senior lecturer at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, told Reuters: "You can never fully hinder sabotage against 8,800 kilometres of pipelines, that's impossible.”
While the oil industry, police, and military have distinct security responsibilities for on- and offshore installations, Stroemmen claimed there had been a lack of coordination between them thus far.
He suggested that the government hire specialised vessels capable of underwater surveillance, readily available in Norway's large maritime industry. As a result, the best way to defend against the use of drones in sabotage could be to invest in similarly sophisticated vehicles.
Main image: Drone at an oil facility. Credit: Anton Petrus via Getty Images