GE methane leak sensing drone aims to help oil industry

U.S. oil and natural gas explorers have had problems saving money during the past two years even though drilling costs have been squeezed by more than a third. General Electric Co. now suggests a solution to this problem.

The helicopter drone named Raven, partly created by GE, is now being tested to detect emission of methane at well sites. The tests are done in GE’s new $125 million oil and gas technology center in Oklahoma City. Just last July, Raven has successfully sniffed out leaking gas from two well sites that were half a mile from each other in Fayetteville Shale, Arkansas.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires gas leaks to be detected and consequently stopped. Leak detection is the first of many possible applications of drones in oilfields. This is with the aim of making workers more productive in the industry which has suffered in the past two years. Over this span, the oil industry has lost billions of dollars in spending cuts, hundreds of thousands of employees have been layoff and 100 companies have declared bankruptcy. It is hoped that the Raven’s custom software will provide lots of useful data for workers in the future.

GE Oil & Gas CEO Lorenzo Simoneli thinks Raven and the usage of new tools and applications will be a key for the industry’s further development. “There’s a lot that you can do going forward to help drive productivity,” he adds.

New methods are being devised by the world’s largest oilfield contractors to gain an edge over competition. These methods not only gather mountains of data but also make it easy for oil companies. GE’s timing could not have been better: regulators are still mapping out the rules for the commercial use of drones.

The lines between technology, industrials and oilfield service leaders are blurring said James West, an analyst at Evercore-ISI. In a note to investors written last month, West mentions the economic downturn which magnified the necessity of maximizing recovery and efficiency.

With the development of more advanced sensors, the data coming from oilfield have increased exponentially. However, most of the data is useless for oil companies. West wrote that only 1 percent of the data is available for use by key oil and gas decision makers.

The drone project began when part of GE’s industrial divisions started experimenting with unmanned aircraft. A year later, John Westerheide, head of the Raven project, now talks about flare stack at refineries or checking gear inspection for wear and corrosion as possible applications.

“Where GE’s taking this from something a guy in a garage can do to what only GE can do, it’s around the way we’re communicating and planning the flights and the way we’re integrating the data,” Westerheide said.

GE partnered with Oklahoma State University and Southwestern Energy Company for the July test. In fact, Southwestern was very much interested on the technology and is willing to test Raven again. This was confirmed by Douglas Jordan, director of the natural gas and oil producer’s corporate environmental program.

“It’s still too early to say what kind of cost savings the drone could produce,” adds Jordan.

GE Research Engineer Ashraf El-Messidi and his team are now working on making the methane inspections thrice as fast. The current method involves the infrared camera-equipped worker walking around the well to check for leaks. The worker would only know if there is a leak or not and not how severe the leak might be.

GE plans to launch a third test drone next month. The black/red drone would be less than 20 pounds and will have six sets of 21-inch long helicopter blades. This drone will be powered by six rechargeable batteries (good for 40 minutes of flight) and would travel at around 50 miles per hour. A laser-based sensor will be mounted on the drone and will send methane data on a worker on the ground.

The improvements to flying robots from the radio-controlled planes are leaps and bounds. This is according to Dustin Sharber, another research engineer on the Raven team. Sharber has been a drone hobbyist and cannot hide his enthusiasm for their project.

Westerheide said: “People hear UAVs and drones and advanced sensors and they get really excited — that’s really flashy. That is legitimately really cool, fun stuff to come to work for everyday.”

More information can be found at: Bloomberg.

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