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Railroad Commission starts using drones to monitor Texas wells

The Railroad Commission of Texas has launched a statewide drone inspection program, using the unmanned devices to monitor situations in areas potentially inaccessible to commission employees.

In a statement, the commission said the drone inspection team became active in April and will allow the state's oil and gas regulator to improve its response time. Specifically, the commission said drones will allow it access to "unsafe" areas during emergencies including fires, floods and other natural disasters. The drones can also be used during the current COVID-19 pandemic to perform inspections in lieu of on-site inspections by staff.

The Railroad Commission said 19 members of its Oil and Gas and Surface Mining and Reclamation Divisions have received remote pilot certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The first Railroad Commission operation took flight April 28, when it was dispatched to monitor reports of an incident involving potential damage to a well during flooding in Reeves County, west of Midland, Texas. The well was inaccessible at the time due to road flooding.

"A licensed RRC pilot launched a drone and determined a possible source of release using aerial and thermal images. The operator was contacted to immediately remediate the site," the commission said.

Railroad Commission Executive Director Wei Wang said the mission in Reeves County was "a great example" of how drones will allow commission inspectors to do their jobs safely and more efficiently.

"With drones, our inspectors can now immediately monitor well blowouts, oil spills, and other emergency incidents, and quickly cover large areas of ground in responding to those situations where time is of the essence," he said.