Featured Content: UAV Revolutionizes the Industry

Is it a bird, is it a plane, a flying robot or a hovering laboratory?


Drones are revolutionizing all aspects of the geoscience world. The technology has untold potential for changing how we gather geophysical data, take field samples, lay out seismic and geochemical arrays. Papers by Saudi Aramco show how using drones in conjunction with other sensors has completely transformed how we examine a rock outcrop. They now perform dangerous, dirty, and monotonous jobs while improving the quality of data and imagery. Drones save time and money by making operations and logistics safer, enabling more accurate measurements and gathering information faster.

The data collected by drones enables us to do things better-cheaper-faster in both the office and in the field. Drones help us fill in the exploration "mosaic," those white spaces on the maps. This complete high resolution data is key for finding minerals of all sorts as well as hydrocarbons. In mature basins, we can lower finding costs by using sensor laden drones to locate buried structures, channel sands, reefs, stratigraphic and precious mineral plays.

The rapid development of drone technology beyond being merely platforms for cameras, to becoming versatile geophysical tools, has been enabled by revolutions in sensor miniaturization, data transmission rates and AI enabled computing. Just as data and data technologies have fundamentally changed our way of living – just think about life before smartphones and wireless networks – the drone and sensor technology revolution with the associated benefits of 5G data transmission and AI computing will transform our lives as geoscientists. Drones give the opportunity to measure geologic and geophysical processes in fields ranging from hydrology to near surface geophysics to natural resource exploration.

As the 5G era dawns, the promise of massive network speeds of 10Gb/s, but also radical improvements to network connectivity and reliability will mean that we can stream the increasing volume of data that we are generating to cloud computing in real time. This will mean that the powerful computer hardware that was required to store a sensor’s data stream of several 100 Mb per second can be eliminated from the drone’s payload which will decrease the weight and enable a longer flight time.

Sensors have been miniaturized from desktop sized machines destined for use in a laboratory to thumbnail sized packages with the same accuracy levels. Miniaturized sensors mean that even a small drone may carry a payload of various sensors that gather images, geophysical and geochemical data and even take physical samples. A recent review of geoscience literature showed a wide variety of sensors including hyperspectral, thermal, x-ray fluorescence, LIDAR, spectrometers, side-aperture radar (SAR) and ‘gas-sniffing’ sensors among many more.

Drones are used by geoscientists as mobile robots to collect samples or deploy geophones, as surveillance tools to monitor methane levels near a production facility or over a pipeline and as platforms carrying sensors to make measurements. Drones come in all shapes, sizes, and designs, such as multi-rotors and fixed wings which can be powered by batteries or some other fuel. At one end of the spectrum are the pilot optional planes that the US’s National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)uses of to gather gravity data. NOAA says it that using drones to map gravity, they'll be able to better reach and survey remote areas. The benefits? Department of Commerce estimates "$522 million in annual economic benefits and approximately $240 million saved from improved floodplain mapping alone." At the other end of the spectrum are amateur hobbyist drones.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the third enabling technology powering the drone revolution. AI enables us to understand the patterns and relationships in huge volumes of data. Some patterns are only visible when looking to the big picture. Other times, Artificial intelligence and machine learning enable us to find correlations that otherwise wouldn't be found. Artificial intelligence software can identify the near infrared signature of a single tree species in a forest and in some cases even determine if the tree is diseased or stressed.

In onshore acquisition, “the biggest challenge to survey design is arguably not what lies beneath the surface but what is on top of it – be it an urbanized area or a rural area with complex terrain” said Stephen Jumper to the American Oil and Gas Reporter. UAV resources capture details with an accuracy of less than one foot (30cm) to map roads, fences, power lines and other features and plan around them before boots ever hit the ground. Detailed maps of the surface and near surface can be derived from this data, which in turn will be used to optimize the layout of the seismic equipment (sources and receivers), as well as the daily operations in the field.

Applications using robotic drones have found their way into the geosciences. The most well known application is METIS (Multiphysics Exploration Technologies Integrated System) which has attacked the problem of seismic imaging of the subsurface in hard-to-access onshore areas. Conventional acquisition and imaging techniques can be expensive and even hazardous in terms of HSE risk, both to workforce, and in some cases, the local natural environment. This ambitious objective was achieved thanks to the use of automated solutions (sensors deployed from drones).
Similarly, Shell and Petroleum Development Oman have been collaborating to develop a tool for using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) to pre-position nodes ahead of line crews in difficult areas. One drone is capable of deploying 42 nodes an hour at 1 km and has a useable radius of up to 4 km based on battery capacity. The system uses a laser altimeter to gently place nodes on uneven terrain and is cable of automated takeoff and landing even with payload and significant wind with its broad tripod landing gear.
These drones could improve the efficiency of the layout crew by removing the need for detailed surveying of each point and decreasing the amount of carried equipment. This reduces HSE exposure but still require personnel to plant the node and retrieve them. Current challenges are both regulations and communications when working with the drone beyond visual range of the operator and in rough terrain, where the system adds most value.
Surveillance and monitoring are another area where drone use has become prevalent. Rig, pipeline and plant inspections are all common uses of drone technology. One example is BHGE’s Lumen Sky which provides continuous UAV methane monitoring for oil and gas operators. LUMEN includes a full-suite of methane monitoring and inspection solutions capable of streaming live data from sensors to a cloud-based software dashboard for real-time results. “Using advanced sensors and industrial software, LUMEN helps operators to protect the environment by detecting harmful methane leaks, and by using advanced data analysis, this technology helps identify and reduce emissions while also increase safety for operators.”

Mineral exploration is a natural fit for a UAV magnetometer survey for a number of reasons. A drone magnetometer survey mitigates the safety concern that is present with ground operators and line cutters. Manned flights in remote areas are dangerous and are expensive to support (including mechanics, fuel dumps, food and lodgings and more). Drone magnetometers are easier to launch, mobilize, set up and re-energize. UAV magnetometers are highly efficient – collecting 100 line kilometres of high quality data while in one day, a technical operator can walk roughly 10-15 line kilometers of ground magnetometer survey. In comparing the quality of data between ground and UAV magnetometer surveys, the density of the data collected from a drone magnetometer survey, both along-line and between tightly spaced lines, results in a detailed image that truly changes the impact of magnetometer data.

Saudi Aramco’s Geodrone technology will open a highly advantageous window of field mapping for their explorationists, greatly facilitating how they conduct their field work. Drones are equipped with high resolution cameras and other tools and sensors, such as hyperspectral sensors, which are required in identifying the properties of minerals. “The novel application has significant business impact,” said Maher Marhoon, GTT chief technologist, “which we plan to fully implement to improve geological analysis for our Exploration customers and training for Saudi Aramco earth scientists.”

The future applications of drones seem to touch every aspect of the geosciences as sensors are miniaturized further meaning that a drone can make even more geophysical measurements on each flight further driving down costs. The sensors will become increasingly precise so we will have high resolution data available to us in real time. Gathering data in remote and ecologically/culturally sensitive places will be done in a non-invasive manner. In the near future, drones will gather ultra high resolution data from multiple geophysical sensors and stream the information in real time to cloud computing where AI enabled processing will deliver results with actionable immediacy.