'Drone Boom' Coming to the Oil Field

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)


They call to mind all sorts of airborne objects, from the strange and ominous to the more workaday and welcome: remote assassins taking out terrorist training camps, quadcopters that drop your Amazon-purchased 90-day supply of Saw Palmetto and case of pizza sauce on your front porch, to those used in geologic mapping and international spying in the field.

There is a veritable “drone boom” afoot in all sectors, from the military to the more mundane, and the oil and gas industry is no exception.

As part of AAPG Geosciences Technology Workshops (GTWs), two courses on the future of drones will help explain how they are going to revolutionize oil exploration.

“Working with Drone Data 101” will be Nov. 30 at the Norris Conference Center in Houston. “New Opportunities with Drones: New Needs, FAA Rule Changes, New Technologies” will be at the same venue Dec. 1-2. Both will discuss the present and future, opportunities and challenges, and the realities and myths of drone technology.

“The two courses,” said Susan Nash, AAPG’s director of innovation and emerging science/technology, are “bridge courses that will help geoscientists put their knowledge to work in a new area — that of surface data derived from remote sensing methods — in this case, from drones.”

Brave New World

The first of these, hosted by Marc Johnson, founder of skynce, LLC, a consulting firm for the implementation of unmanned aerial systems, is “Working with Drone Data 101,” which will serve — as the name suggests — as an introduction to all things drones, specifically what types of data can be acquired by them, including how to use, access and transmit that data through common business platforms such as ArcGIS, Google Earth, SketchFAB and others.

“In this one-day course,” said Johnson, “I will work with the participants to teach them how to leverage drone acquired data in a number of mapping applications.”

The course came about, he said, in response to interest by the AAPG membership for opportunities to learn how this new technology can be implemented in the industry, something Nash said the Association is committed to pursuing.

“AAPG will do whatever we can to introduce new opportunities to Members and to forge new relationships across disciplines to develop new solutions and technologies,” she said.

“Currently,” said Johnson of the technology, “we are seeing increased drone adoption across all industries as technological improvements and regulatory changes usher in a brave new world of drones.”

Regulatory Launch

Jeff Campbell, who will present at the “New Opportunities” workshop the following day (Johnson will also participate), said those regulatory changes were significant and profound.

“Prior to August of 2016,” said Johnson, whose company specializes in such technology, “an individual or company had to go through a very lengthy, cumbersome and restricted waiver process, in which the pilot had to possess an FAA manned aircraft license.”

While there were still plenty of operators, last August, the FAA enacted a remote pilot certification process, known as Part 107, which dramatically reduced the time and paperwork required to operate drones.

“Within the first 15 days, over 12,024 applications had been filed, and 5,124 tests had been taken,” he said.

This new regulation, FAA Part 107, is going to dramatically increase the number of commercial drone operators in the United States, so, too, will the opportunities increase.

“I’ll discuss how this lowered barrier to entry is both good and bad news for potential commercial drone operators,” said Johnson. “Over the course of two days, participants will have an opportunity to hear from and engage with the innovators that are currently implementing drones to solve business challenges.”

He added, almost philosophically, “As you look through human history, you can see that mankind has long sought to gain an aerial perspective of our domain.”

While the opportunities are out there, there are concerns as well — some of the “bad news” to which Campbell referred — particularly concerning security and privacy, which tend to happen when you look up and camera-bearing machines are hovering over your garage.

“There are already existing laws concerning invasion of privacy, peeping toms, stalking or unlawful surveillance,” said Campbell, “regardless whether it’s using binoculars, a ladder over a fence or an airborne drone.”

A ladder, binoculars — those were the days, huh?

“Media attention, public misperception and the maturing of laws and court cases associated with any new technology has created an air of uncertainty regarding drone use and capabilities,” Campbell said.

Common sense, Johnson emphasized, is the key, meaning, specifically, getting permission from property owners — something he always does when acquiring data to construct a map or a 3-D model.


How does all this work, how does one get started?

“The major components,” Campbell said, of starting such a drone-based business include:

  • Picking a segment of the market
  • Choosing equipment
  • Training
  • Certification
  • Marketing
  • Product delivery
  • Staying in business

It sounds perhaps too easy.

“Well, you can’t just pull your drone out of the box, charge the batteries and launch it,” Campbell said, adding,“ or at least you won’t, once you quickly have to buy your second one.”

He also talked about the wannabe drones in the sky — those lacking range and staying power, as well as your leeway in dealing with them. You can’t, for instance, jam their guidance system so they crash or legally shoot them down if they fly over your house.

“They’re not really suited for spying on someone’s teenage daughter,” he said.

That’s a relief.

Campbell, a former retired Navy helicopter pilot, who two years ago partnered up with a professional surveyor to start a drone mapping consulting, training and services business, said, “I’m going to be speaking to our experience and covering the changes that our company, Vertical Aspect, has encountered over the last few years, including the regulatory environment.”

Johnson, too, has skin in the game. With the new regulations, his company will begin offering its customers Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) services for hire in addition to the technology consulting services they currently provide.

“The public perception of drones,” said Campbell, “has changed significantly over the past three years, from being perceived as an unknown and interesting novelty to — depending on how it’s being operated — an irritating, privacy-invading, unsafe flying robot intent upon doing harm. This changing perception must be recognized and mitigated by responsible and safety/privacy conscious operators.”

These courses begin the conversation and mitigation.

For the industry, the potential is clear. Nash said, ultimately, the technology will help in the overlooked mature fields.

“It can help determine where to drill to recover the oil and gas that have been left behind,” she said.

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