Rope Access Work at an Oil Refinery

UAV Drones Threat to Rope Access Jobs?

The military has used UAV drones for many years. Keeping tabs on America’s enemies or dropping freedom on suspicious vehicle convoys.

Broadcasters and photographers employ them to capture aerial images from exciting new angles.

Soon you might even see one land in your yard with a delivery from your favourite kit supplier.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have really taken off in the last couple years thanks to advances in technology and lower costs.


And now, it seems, they’re coming for your job.


Tech Advances

All the above uses for a drone have one thing in common; they’re doing the job we used to need a human to do. Sometimes this is a good thing, such as keeping our servicemen and women out of dangerous situations. It usually means the operator is saving a few bucks because robots come much cheaper than human labor.

As drone technology advances, more firms are looking at them as an alternative to rope access techniques. Some of the worlds biggest oil companies are sending UAVs into situations they would usually send people, often on ropes.

Rope access technicians might be expected to work on offshore drilling rigs, flare stacks, pipes, tanks, derricks and platform underbellies. This often requires a total shutdown of production. Drone operators are already working with offshore companies to provide inspection services without interrupting production. Sometimes for days at a time, saving up to $750,000 per day.

Companies such as Sky Futures use UAVs with HD cameras and thermal imaging to carry out inspection work. “The inspection data we can collect in five days takes rope access technicians about eight weeks,” says Chris Blackford, co-founder and COO at London-based Sky Futures.

My Blackford has a military background and it was his experience of UAV drones usage in Afghanistan that inspired him to form his business.


The oil and gas industry is one of the largest employers of rope access. It is often seen as a trend-setter in the industry for safety and rope access working techniques. The global drop in oil price is causing a mass cost-cutting exercise so they may be setting a new trend of replacing rope access technicians with robots.

We’ve already seen this happen with divers and underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Facebook groups such as Oilfield Families of America are busy with posts discussing layoffs.

These developments raise old concerns about robots taking jobs and, without the protection of a union, the rope access workers of America are at risk of being replaced by machines.

The Gulf Of Mexico is home to 3,300 oil rigs, 1/3 of the global total, and companies like Sky Futures are targeting the US market after getting approval from federal regulators.

“When oil prices were at $100 a barrel and companies were making a lot more money, it didn’t really matter how long you took to do these inspections or how many people you used,” says Mr Blackford. “Demand for our services has doubled this year from 2014 levels, and is expected to treble next year,”.

The use of UAV drones is not limited to the oil and gas industry. They’re also found inspecting wind turbines and communications antenna – both areas employing a high number of rope access technicians.

Skilled Workers

The employment of UAV drones to prevent a human being placed in danger is a good thing. But let’s remember there are many complex situations that will still require a human.

The wholesale deployment of robots in place of rope access technicians is unlikely to happen any time soon. I’ve yet to see a drone clean a window, paint a roof beam, never mind rescue a injured 200-pound climber.

UAV Drones can complement the rope access industry and they may carry out some unskilled or dangerous work. Skilled technicians will still always be required to oversee operations.

It wouldn’t hurt, however, to learn to fly one of the damned things.


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Comment (1)

  • Trey

    I really don’t see drones being able to torque bolts, pressure wash, paint, or do anything but visual inspections. Which if a rope access company were so inclined would be a good way to confirm that there is indeed work to be done without having to climb up and find out. Or even to assist in rigging. I don’t think of drones so much as an alternative to rope access as I stated above but I do think it could be a tool that rope access companies can use to their advantage.

    September 23, 2015 at 1:19 am

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