New Technology Magazine

Getting The Overall Picture

Making use of unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensing in the oilpatch

By Carter Haydu

Cenovus Energy Inc.’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—with its 95-centimetre wingspan, 16-megapixel digital camera, maximum cruising speed of 57 kilometres per hour and 45-minute flight time—is helping measure stockpile volumes and borrow pit volumes, is providing a bird’s-eye perspective on operations, and is already saving the company money.

“It’s hard to quantify the time it has taken to get our program up and running, but I can honestly say that probably this year we will save $150,000,” says Wade Ewen, graphic information systems (GIS) specialist.

“We move so much dirt at Cenovus with our borrow pits and our pads…and this is a good way to simplify our data capturing and to reduce costs in the ground survey work.”

In late 2012, Cenovus developed its UAV business, which was followed by a proof-of-concept flight, analysis of data with business groups, purchase of the first platform and implementation of training in early 2013. Cenovus uses drones produced by senseFly Ltd., a Swiss company that has developed autonomous ultra light flying drones and related software solutions.

In October, the company conducted flights at its Pelican Lake location, followed by more ground-school training in November and special flight operating certificate submissions for Pelican Lake, Christina Lake and Narrows Lake in November.

“In December, we flew. We really wanted to get out and fly over our borrow pits for our annual recording numbers to the government. We did that through a company through Lethbridge, [Alta.], Isis Geomatics Inc., and so they helped us out at Christina Lake where we flew over eight or nine borrow pits,” Ewen told the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada 2014 Geospatial Monitoring & Analytics Forum in April.

According to Stephen Myshak, chief executive officer at Isis, by working with Cenovus and LOOKNorth Centre for Commercialization and Research, this summer his company hopes to have a functioning greenhouse gas emissions detection system to be tested in northern Alberta. “This is going to be on an unmanned vehicle where, traditionally, they have only ever been on manned ones.”

Myshak says industry has approached Isis looking for efficient ways to collect data without having to disturb the land or ask permission to go onto land, as well as to monitor a large amount of area in a short period of time.

The systems can provide live streaming video to a remote server, provide digital mapping for drainage and spill mitigation, and detect subsidence or slumping, leaks and encroachment. Units are generally quiet and non-intrusive, and personnel are removed from danger, he says. Imagery resolution is high, to about five centimetres, and turnaround time is typically hours rather than weeks.

With pipeline monitoring, he says, merely sending someone to walk a line or drive a quadrunner to detect pipe integrity is somewhat limited to the observer’s perceptions. However, he noted, UAVs can collect an array of data depending on the sensors.

“So what can we do with the UAV? Well, first we’ll select the appropriate unit, and in this case it is going to be a fixed-wing, long-range platform, which has very good aerodynamics and can stay in the air a very long time. We’ll get the right sensors…and one of our new ones is a laser-based gas-detection system.

“Then, we’ll go out to the site, fly the area, pull up the data, and we’ll send that data back to the client. For any trouble spots that we find, they can send out a ground-tracking team to verify our findings, taking steps to mitigate the risks. By using the algorithms we’ve come up with, it is kind of a complete solution to a problem.”

However, UAVs are not the only tools for remote sensing in the energy sector. Davor Gugolj, remote sensing and GIS analyst with Golder Associates Ltd., points to the application of field spectrometry for radiometric calibration of multispectral satellite imagery and long-term vegetation monitoring.

“What we are mostly concerned with is the incident energy as it reflected off the objects, as this is pretty much what most of us do for remote sensing,” he says, noting the energy reflected predominantly comes from the sun and bounces off the surface of the earth.

“All matter has specific spectral re­sponses that produce different wavelengths, and these are spectral signatures or spectral response curves.”

Since 2012, Golder has been working on a multi-year, multi-disciplinary monitoring project for Shell Canada Limited’s Quest carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Alberta, with the actual CCS to begin in 2015. Gugolj says there are vegetation, soil and all sorts of other data-collection teams working on the project.

The objective of the project from Golder’s perspective is to document the pre-injection baseline conditions of the hydrosphere and biosphere, he says, adding his company is also identifying different approaches for injection-phase monitoring, as well as developing possible leak-detection methods.

“My part, as the remote-sensing component, is to gather spectral data for atmospheric production of multispectral satellite imagery, and also to compile a spectral-data library or database of various slant-covered types that are existent in the area of interest, establishing the baseline conditions in the project area,” says Gugolj.

Commercial UAV applications require Transport Canada approval as a Special Flight Operation Certificate, which is constrained by a timeline, geographic extent and UAV type, says Ewen. The agency has adopted a “crawl-walk-run” policy to its approval process, and Cenovus is at the walk stage, he says.

So far in 2014, Cenovus has received approval for three operating areas for this year and has submitted an application with Cold Lake Air Weapons Range and Transport Canada for airspace logistics, which is still pending. Ewen says he hopes to see that application approved within the next couple months so Cenovus can take advantage of the upcoming summer at Foster Creek.

He says future applications of UAVs could range from wildlife track surveys to emergency response planning (spill response and site safety maps), vegetation health monitoring to construction monitoring and facility inspections.

You are here: Home Arrow More Arrow Archived Articles Arrow Getting The Overall Picture