Innovators in Technology Series

Drones in the Utica-Marcellus: Interview with Dick Zhang

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Drones can help collect very important surface data that helps in exploration, production, and environmental quality assurance in shale plays. Welcome to an interview with Dick Zhang, Identified Technologies, who talks to us about how digital data acquired through drones has revolutionized the world of construction as well as oil and gas operations.

What is your involvement with drones?

I'm Dick Zhang, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Identified Technologies. We provide aerial monitoring, measuring and mapping for industrial, construction, mining and energy job sites through our proprietary drone package. Our automatic Boomerang mapping drone with its eeDaaS (end-to-end Drone as a Service) system is able to update site data up to 200 times faster than such traditional methods as manual surveys and helicopter or planes.

How did you get interested in drone mapping?

I first became interested in drone technology while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, I was involved with the school's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory and its research into small UAVs. After witnessing a drone demonstration at Penn's GRASP Lab, I began exploring potential uses for this new technology. I attached a high-resolution camera to a drone and began gathering data and identified target markets for such technology. I quickly realized that the construction industry could benefit from a technology that would allow for continuous project tracking.

What are some of the most common uses of drone mapping? What are the advantages of using drones?

Active job sites are continuously changing, but managers typically only receive mapping and monitoring updates on a quarterly basis as traditional methods of manned and aerial surveys are slow and expensive. This results in companies having to make decisions based on old and inaccurate data.

Our self-piloting Boomerang drone package is a complete turn-key site mapping and monitoring solution. We empower construction, mining and energy companies to rapidly upgrade their job site accuracy with centimeter precision at mapping speeds up to 200 times faster than traditional surveying approaches. The near real-time gathering and processing of the data allows companies to know almost immediately of any changes in the job site and enables them to respond accordingly. This can save a company millions of dollars per project.

Please describe two of your most successful drone mapping experiences.

A great example is work we did for Westerville, Ohio-based Kokosing Construction and a new highway project in Kentucky. The company needed to survey two 1,000-acre sites that involved cutting through five mountains and using the rock excavations for fills. It was vital that the company have both precise measurement and an accurate estimate of the amount of stone being moved. Getting the survey results normally take two months with traditional aerial or manned survey methods. A single Boomerang drone and its eeDaaS system took less than a half-day to survey the two separate sites.

The raw data captured was automatically and wirelessly undated to our Site IQ, a secure cloud-based data access portal. The information was then processed into finished 2D and 3D map products. In all, there was a total of 33 million cubic yards of rock moved throughout the project. Having more timely, accurate and sharable mapping data allowed Kokosing to reduce its heavy equipment rental and labor costs. Coupled with the savings of using a Boomerang drone, Kokosing was able to eliminate $105,000 in survey and related costs — an 86 percent reduction.

Another success story is a mapping project we undertook for Seneca Resources, which needed to survey an under-construction 75-acre water management facility in northern Pennsylvania. The project included stockpiling earth on one portion of the site while construction was underway on another part. Seneca is also building a Marcellus pad on the site to tap into the region's rich natural gas field.

Creating an as-built was important to Seneca. Updating mapping systems with accurate descriptions aids planning, well layouts and future activities. In the past, such a survey would be undertaken by a team of several surveyors. Using handheld GPS devices, it would take them three or four days to complete it. Our Boomerang drone was able to survey the entire site in 10 minutes and generate topographical maps and imagery in under an hour.

The map allowed Seneca to check as-planned and as-built progress, as well as stockpile volumetrics, resulting in significant cost reductions. Additional savings were attained by allowing the company to better estimate the day drilling rig rental would need to begin.

What are key considerations in developing a successful drone-based map?

A good example is our Earthworks Analysis Report, which can be generated daily if desired. This report provides highly detailed 3D topography tracking for cut-and-fill maps. That report allows a construction company to immediately determine where the earth needs to be moved to complete a project.

In the past, the only way to gather that data was to use a manned aircraft, which is so cost prohibitive as to limit the frequency of such flights. It just wasn't feasible to collect and analyze that data more than once a quarter or a year. With our Boomerang, we have dramatically decreased the cost, time and effort to gather and analyze such data. For the first time, construction companies have a way to continuously monitor and forecast job site progress.

What are some of the most exciting new directions that you see on the horizon?

Recent advancements in sensor and processing technology have allowed us to dramatically expand our mapping services. We now offer 3D digital surface models, 3D volumetric analysis, 3D point clouds, 2D distance measurements, contour line maps, orthomosaic overlay, site heat maps, and as built vs as planned comparisons. As this technology continues to improve, it will allow us to serve our industries even better.

We have found drones to be a game changer for job site mapping and analysis. The Boomerang's data-capturing sensors allow builders to see site details that were previously undetectable. We are offering clients a way to gather and capture data that's never existed before. Clients are now able to track all of their projects and progress in real time. Deploying sensor-laden drones to gather analytical data has launched the construction, mining and energy industries into the 21st century information age.

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