Can drones save millions for the oil and gas industry?

The oil and gas industry is always looking to boost the efficiency of rigs and wells. Drones in oil and gas industry are a direct amplifier for this efficiency. Drones enable stable, sustained, productive and consistent operations for oil plants.

So, how do you go about doing this? It all begins with exploration. Many high-impact and future-defining decisions are made at the exploration stage. This is where the engineers and supervisors study a claim block or potential site to understand how best to develop it, with least resource utilization and high production.

Challenges involved with upstream oil and gas exploration

A lot of capital is employed in the name of exploration. Heavy equipment and resources (people and material) are hauled to the location and then set-up. The exploration (or investigation) are then initiated using the available technologies.

Engineers require an accurate model of the terrain and the surroundings to understand the extent of development required to set-up a plant. They need exact location data, down to the minutest of details. They require elevation profiling, soil analysis, vegetation mapping, watershed proximity report and so on.

They traditionally use Ground Control Points (GCP) which, when installed in a grid-network, offer Differential GPS (DGPS). It’s the same logic and protocol utilized to analyse the location and motion of stars. The differential GPS offer much higher accuracy than normal GPS.

However, all this is fraught with challenges and inefficiencies:

1. The cost of hauling equipment, resources and people is high
2. The cost of exploration using tools GCP is high due to the high-individual installations required
3. The time taken to set up the exploration base and equipment, to ascertain an acceptable accuracy level (it takes about 24 hours for the GCP to collate and improve their accuracy), and to analyse and build on the gathered information is high
4. Even when all the information is gathered, it’s broken and fragmented. To collate and make sense of all takes skill and efforts. The downside here is that, due to the amount of collation and superimposition required, the overall results are often compromised due to the escalating scale of data involved.

Yes, drones are the answer to all these challenges. Let’s jump straight to compare the drones with the traditional process.

Drones cut down cost of equipment and resource hauling

Consider the cost of hauling the equipment, resources and people. Drones, especially ideaForge drones, are totally man-portable. This means that the entire Ground Control Station (GCS) including the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), communication controller and a laptop (and connectors), can be easily and comfortably carried by a single person in a backpack.

The engineer can set-up the waypoints (the location or points to which the drone will fly across in a path) and initiate the launch. ideaForge drones have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) requiring a minimal home base, and hence can be launched from any terrain.

The entire flight of the drone is automated. The engineer can also dynamically add waypoints if required. They control the camera through a 360-degree angle for complete visuals. They can also zoom in multiple levels for deeper investigations.

The visuals are beamed live to the GCS for instant analysis and adjustments. The engineer doesn’t even have to present at the home base. The information is encrypted and processed instantly for viewing anywhere around the world. Engineers and supervisors can remotely assess the site and its every detail instantly irrespective of where they are.

This initial surveying and mapping of the site help the engineers and supervisors to direct their resources better. They would know, beforehand, exactly which equipment and how many resources would be required at the site at any point in time.

Drones to boost the accuracy, quality and speed of exploration

As mentioned earlier, the engineers use GCPs to map the terrain accurately. However, this is cost and time-intensive. Drones can survey and map the entire site, hundreds of acres within days (not weeks or months taken otherwise) using multi-satellite linking GPS. ideaForge drones have built-in connection and process fail-safes that mandate the high-level of GPS connectivity at all times.

Even while working with the GCP, ideaForge drones boost the accuracy while cutting on the time taken for completion of the process. The GCPs interlink with the drones to increase their range. This means that far fewer GCPs are used to build a grid. This saves on the time, resources and cost utilized for the unnecessary installations. The accuracy is higher as the drones are constantly validating their location with multiple satellites.

Going a step further, drones enable high-impact Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) and Post-Processing Kinematic (PPK) for precise orthomosaic imagery. This meant that all images are exact representations (to scale). This amplifies the collective accuracy of subsequent analytic reports.

Drones increase the total efficiency of oil and gas exploration

Now, coming to the point where drone-led surveying and mapping have given faster and better results, the next phase of analytics is initiated. Drones carry payloads like cameras and other imaging equipment. ideaForge drones have easily swappable payloads. They even have dual payloads for simultaneous live HD visuals and, say, deep thermal imaging.

Drone surveillance of the site gives live feedback. This live stream is stored on the server of choice, completely time and location-tagged. All information is instantly processed through superior software for fast analytics. The same collection, collation and processing that took weeks or months, take not more than days with ideaForge drones.

The quality and extent of the analytics go far beyond what was traditionally possible. Drones may utilize induced polarization imaging to understand the exact sub-surface deposits and deeper soil analysis. The same can be efficiently handled with high-quality thermal imaging.

Detailed 3D Digital Elevation Models (DEM) can be rendered within days with the exact dimensions (to scale) with precise vegetation mapping, soil analysis, watershed proximity and surrounding area survey.

The engineers and planners can decipher:

1. Exactly which section needs to be leveled
2. Which part has hardened soil and would need more resources to set the foundation
3. How the watershed and surrounding resources can be utilized in a sustainable way (minimizing environmental impact)
4. How best to link the pipelines and the roads for consistent hauling of crude oil to the refineries and processing plants, and further on

The idea is simple. The higher the quality of the investigations at the exploration stage, the higher the efficiency and productivity across the midstream and downstream processes. Drones help cut down the cost by more than 2/3rd and the time more than 3/4th of the traditional methods. Furthermore, the enhanced quality of information and analytics gives much more actionable and realistic insights.

A study showed that for a total production cost for a barrel (crude oil or gas) was $12.6/boe (barrel of oil equivalent). The cost of exploration stood at $1.36/boe. The exploration cost comes here at about 10.8%. Drones can help bring down this exploration cost by around 16.7% (naturalistic assessment – actual benefits might be more). This can bring the cost of production down to $12.37, the benefit getting amplified with scale reaching hundreds and thousands of barrels.

So, it’s elementary. Drones in oil and gas industry, are essential for establishing a stable, efficient and environmentally-sustainable ground to build future operations.



October 2022

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