Technical Inquiry Highlight: Pipeline Surveillance Using UAVs

HDIAC received a request for technical information and analysis on cultural research addressing oil pipeline surveillance using unmanned aircraft vehicles in Nigeria.

Background Information

The U.S. Department of Defense spent more than $3 billion on UAV technology since 1990. [1] In addition to DoD’s investment, UAVs are used by the U.S. government for firefighting, search and rescue, imagery and mapping, media, communication, intelligence gathering, border surveillance and infrastructure inspection. [2] As UAV technology gains popularity, commercial usage of this capability also increases. Businesses are using or considering using UAVs for deliveries, internet services, news reporting, photography, agriculture, population data and search and rescue missions. [3] Use of drones to survey infrastructure is cost effective and efficient. For example, in Alaska, it takes UAVs 30 minutes to survey a three kilometer section of pipeline versus five to seven days with a human survey crew. [4] Drone accuracy and efficiency is recognized and is therefore wanted in other parts of the world.

Nigeria is the 13th largest producer of oil in the world with 80 percent of its revenue coming from oil. [5,6] As a mono-economy, Nigeria relies on revenue from oil for economic stability and future growth. [7]

Protecting both infrastructure and oil assets is difficult with rampant theft and vandalism, especially in the Niger Delta. The Nigerian government and regional oil companies have a need for more effective oil surveillance; capable of monitoring vast areas of the nation’s pipelines. Globally, UAVs [4] perform many industrial operations, including delivering supplies and surveying land and oil pipelines. [4,8]

Although a seemingly obvious choice, utilizing UAVs for oil security presents cultural concerns. Nigeria experiences culturally-based fear surrounding UAVs, as well as established corruption, where bank presidents, government officials, military officers and terrorist organizations benefit from oil theft. [5]

Resource Protection

Nigeria produces an estimated two million barrels of oil per day, with nearly 20 percent stolen daily. [5] Despite oil resources and a growing economy, Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product is more than $1 trillion, however the GDP per capita is only $6,000. [6] Protecting its oil production is therefore a priority for the Nigerian government.

As a result of increased corruption, vandalism and theft, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation opted for a “phase-rehabilitation of all the state-owned refineries.” [10] The reconfigured strategy includes the Nigerian Army Engineering Corps securing and protecting pipelines while also providing survey capabilities. [11] This effort also includes distinct divisions among pipelines, storage and products marketing. [10]

UAVs for Surveillance

Of the 16,083 total Nigerian pipeline breaks in the last 10 years, only 2.4 percent were accidental ruptures, while vandals were responsible for the other 97.5 percent. [6] By taking the role of surveillance cameras, UAVs may prove an effective deterrent against oil theft. The United Nations uses drones in Africa to supply assistance and to remind terrorists groups and militants that they are being watched. [12] This preventative measure could be employed and be effective to deter oil thieves.

Cultural Implications

For decades, Nigeria has suffered from a societal and stigma-related culture of corruption. Government officials, military officers, security forces and militia groups stole oil not only for profit, but for power. [13] This culture of complicit theft is one reason Nigeria is implementing new methods to attempt to reduce corruption and illegal bunkering.

With the emergence of commercial utilization of UAVs to monitor pipelines and storage tanks, Nigeria stands to gain more control of oil security and profits. Unfortunately, the introduction of UAVs brings culturally-established fears forward. In 2014, Boko Haram, a terrorist organization, abducted 276 schoolgirls. The outcry for the girls’ safe return resonated globally, and the United States sent support to Nigeria to help recover the girls. The United States also deployed UAVs from a base in neighboring Chad [14] and has plans to expand drone bases in Africa. [15] The use of UAVs in this instance raised awareness of drone surveillance capabilities and also increased fears of being watched. “Without touching anything, going anywhere near them, we’re sending a clear message: we know where you are, surrender.” [16]

Conclusion and Recommendations

UAVs will be a necessary step in securing Nigeria’s pipelines. UAVs have the technological capabilities of visualizing, identifying and inspecting Nigeria’s extensive oil infrastructure. The ability to detect and observe oil leaks and spills as well as record illegal activity will be paramount in moving forward to better the nation’s economy. UAV surveillance will greatly benefit these efforts by providing a birds-eye-view of the process from beginning to end.

Nigeria’s policy changes will begin to inhibit the established culture of corruption. By outsourcing security details and removing former militants from the process, Nigeria is making it clear that the future of its oil is directly tied to the future of the country. These efforts will continue to suppress institutional corruption.

From a cultural viewpoint, education is key to not only change societal expectations but also to reduce fear. As drone usage becomes more commonplace for commercial, military and humanitarian missions, a deeper understanding of the technological advancements will emerge.

UAV technology is readily available and viable for extensive applications. Increases in commercial use of UAVs will force addressing new regulations, policies, certifications and risk evaluations.


1. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics. (2005). Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

2. Anand, Saurabh. (2007). Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems: an Evaluation of Policy Constraints and the Role of Industry Consensus Standards. Washington Internships for Student Engineers (WISE). Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

3. Wohlsen, M., & stealth drone captured by Iran, U. S. (2012). Drones coming to a sky near you as interest surges. Associated Press, Apr, 1, 2012-04. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

4. Cunningham, N. (2015, July 23). Drones Could Become Commonplace in the Oil Industry. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

5. Katsouris, C. and Sayne, A. (2013). Nigeria’s Criminal Crude: International Options to Combat the Export of Oil. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

6. Ogwu, F. (2011). Challenges of Oil and Gas Pipeline Network and the role of Physical Planners in Nigeria. Newcastle University FORUM, 10(1), 43-43. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

7. Boris, O.H. (2015). The Upsurge of Oil Theft and Illegal bunkering in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Is There a Way Out?” Mediterranean Journal of Social Science, 6(3S2): 563-573. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

8. Drones provide BP with eyes in the skies. (2014, November 13). Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

9. Central Intelligence Agency FactBook. Nigeria. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

10. Odunsi, W. (2015). NNPC Unbundles PPMC into Three Companies, to Engage Military for Pipeline Protection Daily Post. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

11. Adelana, O. (2015). NNPC Partners Nigerian Army for Pipeline Protection. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

12. Mwanza, K. (2015). Destined to Disrupt: Nigeria to Deploy Drones to Fight Oil Theft. AKF Insider. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

13. Katsouris, C. and Sayne, A. (2013). Nigeria’s Criminal Crude: International Options to Combat the Export of Oil. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

14. Pellerin, Cheryl (22 May 2014). “DOD sends UAV, 80 Airmen to help Nigerian search”. U.S. Air Force. Retrieved 23 May 2014. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

15. Whitlock, C. (2014). Pentagon Set to Open Second Drone Base in Niger as it Expands Operations in Africa. Washington Post. National Security. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).

16. Unmanned Aircraft Systems Service Demand 2015. United States Air Force. Retrieved from (accessed December 15, 2015).



Focus Areas

Want to find out more about this topic?

Request a FREE Technical Inquiry!