Drone Initiatives in Oil and Gas Applications

Drone Initiatives in Oil and Gas Applications

By Matthew Todaro

Oil and gas companies are able to work smarter and faster with drone technology. These small and agile robots compared to human workers can fly (quite quickly), don’t require sleep breaks, and aren’t partial to specific kinds of work. Perhaps, most important to the mining industry is that drones can be equipped with sensors, often tailored specifically to comply with oil and gas companies’ standards.

Drones can save oil and gas companies time and money when performing tasks like aerial mapping, monitoring real-time, and surveying gas leaks. Best of all, they are a safer option than human labor. Despite the benefits, financial barriers remain the biggest obstacle impeding the drone revolution in the oil and gas industry.

Drones Provide More Cost-Effective Aerial Mapping

Marcellus Shale, also known as the Marcellus Formation, is a low density, black, organic-rich shale in northeastern USA – through the western halves of New York and Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and continuing down into West Virginia. One startup, Identified Technologies, makes small drones and has been leasing drones to oil and gas companies as early as March of 2015 to survey sites in Marcellus Shale regions. One of their drones, the Boomerang, is small and built of slick carbon fiber. It can fly up to 40 miles per hour.

“Some of our clients used to wait 8 to 10 weeks for aerial mapping data from a helicopter…we can do the same thing but instead of 8 weeks we’ll do it in 15 minutes,” said CEO of Identified Technologies, Dick Zhang, in an interview.

Drones Help Oil and Gas Companies Comply With the EPA

Even before 2015, though, oil and gas companies utilized drones in Arctic regions. One of the high-opportunity spaces to move into is methane detection, according to Dick Zhang, the CEO of Identified Technologies. Detection of methane is especially pertinent to satisfy Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates for oil producers to monitor sites for leaks.

Drones, Like Raven, Detect Gas Leaks With New Precision

General Electric Co. (GE) debuted a new solution to oil and gas exploration and monitoring towards the end of 2016. The helicopter drone, Raven, was presented during the opening of GE’s new Oklahoma oil and gas R&D center. GE believes Raven and technologies like it are instrumental in moving the industry forward. This is true for a few reasons, such as the ability to cut costs, improve health and safety of workers, and improve time efficiency. Currently, most organizations conduct their inspections by deploying workers carrying infrared cameras into the field. A slow, arduous process, workers plod around sites until a leak is detected. At best, after a period of time, a worker can merely identify the presence of a leak – a binary yes or no – but lack insight into the extent of the leak.

On the other hand, Raven is a manageable 20-pound drone equipped with laser-based sensors. It can fly 40 minutes continuously until needing a recharge. When a leak is identified, Raven is smart enough to infer extent and severity, and all data it collects is relayed back to an iPad. The drone’s capabilities were verified July of 2016 during a trial run where Raven successfully located gas leaks from sites in the Fayetteville Shale of Arkansas.

Financing Drones for Oil and Gas Initiatives

Utilizing drones such as Boomerang, Raven, and others like them is a preferable solution over current standards – if you can afford to buy a fleet. The exact cost of a drone varies based on specifications and the supplier, but it’s still expensive.

Surprisingly, the best drone solutions for oil and gas initiatives don’t come from companies at all – they come from governments. In mid-2016, NASA successfully conducted a flight test of a miniature methane gas sensor that their Jet Propulsion Lab developed. However, NASA’s usages of this sensor will probably be limited to its own applications, such as for studies on Mars and Titan, for the time being.

When drone applications affordably commercialize and become standard in the oil and gas industry, the industry will benefit. Whether galvanization comes from within the industry or elsewhere, such as through a government agency, remains to be seen. Either way, the possibilities of consistently cutting costs, improving health and safety of workers, and improving time efficiency are exciting.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at solutions@prescouter.com.

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