Drones to the Rescue: Deployed to Check Assam's Oil & Natural Gas Theft

With Assam's pipeline network of 50-60 kms, air surveillance will be important to enhance oil & natural gas output.

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Drones to the Rescue: Deployed to Check Assam's Oil & Natural Gas Theft

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The escalating theft of oil and natural gas has prompted a state-owned oil exploration firm to use air surveillance to check pilferage.

Oil India Limited (OIL) has firmed up plans to make use of drones in Assam, where its pipelines carry crude oil and natural gas from wells to collecting stations.

“OIL is in the final stage of awarding the contract to a firm for drone surveillance of the pipelines, to be carried out mostly at night. We expect it be operationalised within 3-4 months,” said OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika.


Assam Has a Oil Pipeline Network of Nearly 60 Kms

Hazarika, who is based in Assam, explained that the footage from the drones would be monitored round-the-clock from twin centres at Duliajan and Digboi. These two townships have a network of pipelines where pilferage is extremely high. Ground teams will swing into action whenever theft is detected by the drones.

The rationale of the project stems from the PSU’s inability to keep an effective tab on all the pipelines from the wells to the compressor station that criss-cross the region. The network of pipelines under OIL in eastern Assam total around 50-60 kms.

Theft of crude oil and gas was the primary reason for the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to shift the terminal from Tinsukia to a location near its headquarters at Digboi.

Hazarika explained that some ‘sensitive zones’ have been identified in and around the twin townships where the drones would be most active.

Centre's Plans to Enhance Oil & Natural Gas Output From the Northeast

Use of drones for air surveillance assumes importance in view of the Centre’s plan to enhance the output of oil and natural gas in the northeast.

Currently, the region accounts for about 10 per cent of the total output in the country. Under the Hydrocarbon Vision 2030, an amount of Rs 1.30 lakh crore has been earmarked for investment in the northeast.


OIL’s decision to deploy drones comes almost a year after a similar permission was granted by the government to IOC for four months to monitor the Delhi-Panipat pipeline. However, IOC was allowed to use drones only during the day and within visual line of sight.

In Assam, theft occurs at both the over and underground pipelines that carry motor spirit and crude oil from the wells. There have been occasions in the past couple of decades, when thieves have stolen crude oil and the condensate from well heads and motor spirit from oil tankers.

Holes in the pipeline being plugged in Assam. 

(Photo: Special arrangement by the author)

Thieves Become Innovative While Pilfering

A police official pointed out that thieves have been making use of different techniques to drill holes in the pipelines.

“A small spark could cause a blast. The drilling of the hole is a slow process and done very meticulously by the thieves to prevent accidents,” said the official who was earlier posted in the affected district of Tinsukia.

Recently, thieves were found adopting precautionary measures such as spraying chemicals to avoid sparks, which is why the frequency of blasts have declined. The PSUs are able to detect the pilferage hours after holes are punched in the pipeline, which gives the thieves ample time to siphon off a colossal quantity of motor spirit and crude oil.

At times, the involvement of PSU employees in the racket has been detected like last February when four ONGC personnel were arrested at Sivasagar.

This illicit activity thrives owing to the huge demand across the country for stolen petroleum products. Crude oil is mostly consumed as furnace oil in different industries.

In 2004, the arrest of kingpin Putul Gogoi led the police to a bought-leaf tea factory in Jorhat, resulting in the arrest of its owner and two managers when they were found to have 4000 litres of oil in their possession.

A section of officials with the oil PSUs believes that drones could improve surveillance but pilferage can only stop if demand is eliminated. Recently, OIL had made a case before the police for cooperation in eradicating the demand for petroleum products in the grey market.

(Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati. He tweets @rajkbhat.)

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Topics:  Assam   ONGC   Guwahati 

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