Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, are being used in numerous applications. The number of drones being used and the number of applications to which their use is being applied is growing at a tremendous rate. Companies like Amazon- PrimeAir and DHL already have the ability to deliver packages to customers. A company called CyberHawk is an aerial inspection company that deploys its drones to perform visual inspections of high-value and high-risk offshore assets. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses drones to evaluate activity that has triggered signals from geophones placed along the U.S. border.

In the U.S. the new small UAS Rule (Part 107), including all pilot and operating rules, came into effect Aug. 29, 2016. In the U.S. alone, as of mid-March 2016, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had more than 408,000 registrations of drones that had a weight between 0.55 lb and 55 lb. The FAA is forecasting 2.5 million commercial (nonmodel) drones in the U.S. by year-end 2017. Drones are common enough these days that ready-to-fly drones are available off the shelf, and the price associated with these can start as low as about $500. The FAA also is forecasting that over the next few years the average price of lower end small drone units will be $2,500, and the average price for upper-end models of small drones will be $40,000. One of the obvious uncertainties in forecasting the drone market is related to the unknown nature of the evolution of federal regulations.

Drones in land seismic operations

Since the industry is continually on the lookout for ways to improve efficiency, decrease cost, improve the safety of operations and reduce the social and environmental impacts of its activities, it is obvious that applications of drone technology are being explored. Ron Bell, in a presentation to the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists in July 2015 titled “How Drones Will Change Exploration Geoscience,” listed the advantages of drones for data collection: 1) low-altitude operation, 2) programmable flight path, 3) lower datapoint cost, 4) improved productivity, 5) higher definition, 6) greater sensitivity, 7) access to difficult and risky areas, 8) generation of more data, and 9) reduced risk to personnel and public safety.

The benefits of having a bird’s-eye view in land seismic data acquisition operations are almost limitless. Seismic operations have always relied on “boots on the ground” information. Some of the major activities of a seismic operation include surveying, shot-hole drilling, acquisition-equipment layout, troubleshooting and moving/ retrieving equipment. Each stage of the operation is critical to move on to the next. Information about the status of all of the activities associated with a seismic operation, including how the acquisition system is performing, is crucial for party chiefs and managers. The primary conveyers of this information are the members of the seismic crew.

The terrain, weather and infrastructure have large impacts on seismic operations. An elevated, time-varying video of these factors without endangering crew members is what a drone can easily provide today. With respect to video feedback, most drones come with cameras capable of recording up to 4K video quality. These cameras are usually mounted on a gimballed structure that facilitates recording high-quality images. As weather or ground conditions change, field activities can be modified for safety reasons as necessary. By being able to monitor on-theground conditions over large areas, crew members can be instructed to avoid high-water areas or guided to alternative routes. In the Amazon a small downpour can change the day-to-day waterways that the crew uses to service a live patch of receivers. In areas of steep and rugged topography rainfall can change the availability of what had been accessible trails or approaches. In desert terrains sand may shift, again causing access routes to change.

There are often sensitive areas (cultural, archeologic, environmental or regulatory) that require a custom approach for access or avoidance. Crew efficiency, in addition to safety, can be improved by the use of drones. Simple verification that a recording station was deployed properly or that a receiver or receiver string has actually been stomped into the ground can prevent having crew members traverse difficult terrain just for those purposes. It is anticipated that this technology will have an impact on making decisions about when to shut down and/or restart operations due to noise levels created by weather or other time-varying conditions. Because land acquisition often requires operations in less-than-perfect terrain and weather conditions, the use of video information provided by drones is almost unlimited, and this is with existing technology.

What’s coming

Considering where the technology is undoubtedly headed, one can see additional uses for drones in land operations. In particular, many other types of information besides video can be provided in real time. Existing drone technology has centimeter accuracy with respect to position, so improved accuracy over what is generally available in seismic operations of specific land positions can be provided by its use. Information related to noise and other seismic-line status can be collected using drones. Geospace Technologies is developing a system that includes a Line Health Recorder with radio communication. This system can send a full receiver status scan (GPS health, battery health, memory remaining in the recording unit, geophone test results and root mean square noise levels) back to a base station in real time. The associated software has the ability to collect status from radio transceivers that are mounted in the field and/or on a helicopter, a mobile vehicle or a drone. Using video confirmation and status information can minimize the hazards of working in dangerous areas. For example, if projects like the 2014 Huacaya 3-D survey (750 sq km [290 sq miles], 27,000 live nodal stations) in Bolivia, where the mountainous terrain proved to be a logistical obstacle, would have had this technology available, hundreds of man-hours could have been saved. What took two mountaineers, one medic and one qualified LineViewer crew member to walk in 8 hours could have been done in less than half the time. Collecting line-status data, video confirmation and other information is going to become a necessity as seismic data collection evolves in the near future. The industry wants more information, higher resolution information and delivery of information faster.

It is a given that regulations will evolve rapidly and vary from country to country over the next few years. A seismic contractor that works globally will likely encounter different regulations as its crews work in one country or another. It is a reality today that some countries do not allow drones to be imported, which means that to implement drone technology into a seismic operation, the contractor has to build its own in country.

In the long run, the use of drones to aid in field acquisition of seismic data will happen. How fast the technology is adopted and to what ultimate extent depends on 1) how it reduces exposure to risk and hazards for the crew; 2) how much it reduces the required crew man-hours per survey; 3) its impact on the quality of the seismic data acquired; and 4) its social and environmental benefits.