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10 UAV Jobs of the Future

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Energy Inspector
BP is experimenting with drones equipped with thermal cameras that can detect leaks and weak spots along the trans-Alaska pipeline, for a fraction of the cost of a helicopter. Rolf Hicker/All Canada Photos/Getty Images
BP is experimenting with drones equipped with thermal cameras that can detect leaks and weak spots along the trans-Alaska pipeline, for a fraction of the cost of a helicopter. Rolf Hicker/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

The trans-Alaska pipeline runs 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the frozen oil fields of Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to the nearest ice-free port in Valdez. The 48-inch (1.2-meter) pipeline, which transports a slurry of crude oil and natural gas to the lower 48 states, is an engineering marvel that carries 15 percent of America's domestic oil production [source: Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau].

A single leak along any of those 800 miles not only results in lost revenue for BP, which owns the pipeline, but also environmental havoc. A 2006 pipeline fracture in Prudhoe Bay resulted in 200,000 gallons (757,082 liters) of oil spilled across 2 acres (0.81 hectares), and a 2014 leak sprayed an oily mist across 27 acres (11 hectares) of tundra. The 2006 leak necessitated a $500 million upgrade [source: DeMarban].

BP is experimenting with drones equipped with thermal cameras that can detect leaks and weak spots along the pipeline for a fraction of the expense of deploying a helicopter [source: BP].

Drones are also proving indispensable for inspecting the massive turbine blades of wind farms, which can be hundreds of feet above the ground. Huge solar energy operations with acres and acres of panels are also partnering with drone outfitters to detect broken panels and defective turbines using automated swarms of aerial cameras. Drones can even be used to scare off birds and other wild animals that could get injured or damage remote equipment [source: Woody].


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