GE drone sniffs out oilfield savings
The new GE Research Center in Oklahoma

GE has a solution for U.S. oil and natural gas explorers struggling to save money

Raven, a helicopter drone being developed in part by GE at its new $125 million oil and gas technology center in Oklahoma City, is being tested to sniff for methane emissions at well sites. GE proved during a trial run in July that Raven could find gas leaking from a pair of well sites a half mile from each other in the Fayetteville Shale of Arkansas.

Detecting and stopping leaks, a requirement the Environmental Protection Agency enacted earlier this year, is the first of many planned applications for oilfield drones to make workers more productive in an industry that has suffered billions of dollars in spending cuts, hundreds of thousands of layoffs and more than 100 bankruptcies in North America over the past two years. 

“When you think of Project Raven and the usage of new tools and applications, it’s going to be key to take the industry forward,” Lorenzo Simoneli, chief executive officer at GE Oil & Gas, said in an interview Tuesday from his company’s new research center, a day ahead of its grand opening. “There’s a lot that you can do going forward to help drive productivity.”

“The downturn magnified the necessity of maximizing recovery and efficiency, a pursuit which is blurring the lines between technology, industrials, and oilfield service leaders,” James West, an analyst at Evercore-ISI, wrote last month in a note to investors.

As more advanced sensors roll out, the amount of oilfield data grows faster than companies know what to do with it. Key oil and gas decision makers have access to only about 1 percent of the available data, West wrote. The rest is unstructured or unusable.

GE’s oilfield drone project began last year after some of its other industrial divisions explored how they could use unmanned aircraft. Other applications could include inspecting flare stacks at refineries or checking gear for mechanical wear and corrosion, John Westerheide, head of the Raven project, said in
an interview.

“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.

The test in July was done in partnership with Southwestern Energy Co. and Oklahoma State University. The drone technology looked promising enough that Southwestern’s interested in testing the Raven again, said Douglas Jordan, director of the natural gas and oil producer’s corporate environmental program, said. It’s still too early to say what kind of cost savings the drone could produce, he said.

GE was an early investor in drones and popularized the idea of using drones for the 4 Ds – dirty, distant, dull and dangerous. The original use case was for wind turbine inspection. This type of application is driven by the need for compliance. When one considers how many thousands of miles of pipeline in the US (one site I found says 2.5M) you get an immediate idea of how big a deal this is.
The other thing that is not being hit too hard in this article is that it is a safe bet that GE is using their Predix platform to help manage the data.



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