Hydrocarbon exploration inarguably is benefiting from ongoing advances in technology – even if certain technical apparatuses being used appear to belong in a sci-fi movie rather than the oil patch.
Sometimes looking a bit like super-size bugs hovering in the sky, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used to meet various needs in the industry, proving to be useful both onshore and offshore.
They can be used, for example, to inspect oilfield equipment and pipelines and to monitor gas flares.
But their significance for the geologist is the ability to acquire up-close, highly detailed images of outcrops, particularly in high elevations where camera-equipped helicopters entail the usual element of risk along with considerable monetary output.
Piloted via remote control, the drones are essentially flying robots. They can safely fly at exceptionally low altitudes, enabling their digital cameras to capture extremely high-resolution images of the surface.
Granted, drones per se are not a new phenomenon, actually being commonplace in the military and in certain law enforcement agencies where they are used for aerial surveillance and myriad other tasks.
They can be small enough to hold in your hand, or they can resemble actual small-size aircraft. Reportedly, there is one the size of a hummingbird, appropriately called a “nano hummingbird.”
These oddities are beginning to make serious inroads into the private sector.
This is due in large part to the availability and incorporation of mini-size electronics and special software programs to handle the various data they can gather.
Helpful, Or a Nuisance?
But despite their value, drones likely won’t be crowding the skies – at least not right away.
There’s controversy aplenty surrounding the use of UAVs, given their ability to swoop down almost anywhere with no warning to snap some detailed, high-resolution photos of sometimes-off-limit subjects.
Is it a bird? Is it a bug? Modern drones might look a bit odd, but they’re proving to be valuable tools in gaining data to help better understand geology. Photo courtesy of the VOG group, CIPR
Certain countries, including the United States, have strict regulations for UAVs being used for commercial purposes, and some countries have no restrictions. The U.S. rules reportedly will be relaxed significantly in the near future. A number of entities already are exempt in large part, such as universities, federal and local law enforcement agencies.
There are folks who take matters into their own hands.
Certain private citizens are known to build their own drones, accompanied by special “goggles” to enable the users to view the photo target as if they are looking directly through the camera at work aboard the UAV.
Such homemade packages can even be purchased for a surprisingly low price.
Just don’t look for them at your local Big Box emporia.