[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of E&P. Subscribe to the magazine here.]

Amid an ongoing worldwide campaign against global warming and calls for a reduction in carbon emissions, methane management has become one of the primary concerns of the oil and gas industry. Several companies, including oil majors, have committed to net-zero emissions and are seeking digital solutions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. According to a 2019 report by EDF and Accenture Strategy, the deployment of digital tools and systems across oil and gas operations can help companies accelerate the process of understanding and preventing methane leaks. The report also stated that innovations such as automated asset management, predictive maintenance and Industrial Internet of Things could help prevent an annual loss of $34 billion in leaked, vented and flared methane.

Drone-based monitoring programs have emerged as a strong potential solution to reduce emissions by providing a better understanding of where leaks occur and at what magnitude. Drones have become an integral part of methane monitoring operations, replacing conventional methods of inspection in the oil and gas industry over the last few years due to their increasing usability to drive operational efficiency, according to a report by GlobalData. Drone manufacturers are collaborating with oil and gas companies to develop custom drone platforms that can be equipped with data collection technologies for obtaining real-time insights, the report stated.

Digital solutions 
In January 2019, Baker Hughes released a digitally integrated platform called Lumen, which was developed to monitor methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Lumen includes a host of technologies to detect methane leaks, which are capable of live-streaming data from sensors to a cloud-based software dashboard for real-time results.

“Lumen’s tagline is making the invisible visible, which is essentially what Lumen does,” Jason Roe, CEO of Avitas, a Baker Hughes’ venture, told E&P. The platform consists of two connected formats—Lumen Terrain for ground-based solar-powered wireless sensor network and Lumen Sky for over-air monitoring to ensure methane emissions are monitored as efficiently and accurately as possible.

“[Lumen Sky] gives us the ability to offer flexible solutions to clients where we can offer very detailed surveys of an area. Lumen Terrain is a ground-based system, where we have point sensors on the ground creating a ‘smart digital mesh’ to enable communication between sensors and a base station for providing basic information such as wind direction,” Roe explained.

According to a company press release, once a leak is detected, Lumen uses proprietary algorithms and machine learning to provide methane concentration data, location and rate of the leak, which can be accessed in real time, giving operators the ability to make quick and reliable decisions to save time, costs and environmental damage.

Avitas also is developing new features for Lumen Sky. As Roe explained, in addition to getting the recordings and imagery through the use of computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, the new feature will provide automated detection and quantification, which automate the manual work of the traditional drone inspection using an optical gas imaging camera.

Explaining the motivation behind the development of Lumen, Roe said it is difficult to deal with a problem without finding a way of inspecting, monitoring or measuring its magnitude. He cited statistics that 40% of the oil and gas industry’s carbon footprint comes from venting, flaring and fugitive emissions, which the energy companies need to address amid the industry’s changing dynamics. The energy sector’s social licensing to operate is being challenged with public, regulatory and environmental scrutiny, which shows the industry needs to be proactive in managing carbon emissions, Roe said.

Avitas technology used to drive intelligent inspections. (Source: Baker Hughes)

Areas of operation
Avitas provides automated and remotely monitored inspections for industrial infrastructure, integrating cameras and sensors with autonomous aerial or ground-based sensors. Its inspection platforms offer repeatable visual inspection, coupled with advanced computer vision analytics for added operational insights.

The company’s core competencies include data analytics and the application of AI, computer vision and machine learning.

“We are a smart inspection and monitoring solutions provider. We are generally focused on asset integrity and the inspection and monitoring of assets, but we use a variety of methods to do this and that’s where the ‘smart’ comes in,” Roe said.

In addition to inspection services, Avitas’ smart solutions combine the ability to fuse large historical datasets with advanced analytics and deep learning models to enable predictive analytics and risk-based decisions. These models are stored to process inspection data in real time and retrain deep learning models to adapt to new use cases rapidly.

Roe explained that being a Baker Hughes venture, Avitas enjoys several benefits such as having access to Baker Hughes’ resources while keeping its identity and maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit with the opportunity to grow and run autonomously.

“Being completely owned by Baker Hughes, we have the ability to plug into its existing infrastructure, sales forces and the subject matter expertise,” he said.

Automating inspection
Traditional measurement practices can be subjective, inaccurate and inefficient, putting companies at risk of dangerous, damaging and costly leaks. Roe highlighted three clear and immediate benefits to operators from automating their inspection processes.

It is a safer way to operate. Often, asset inspection at well sites can be dangerous to human lives while accessing difficult-to-access inspection points and without advanced knowledge of any existing emissions.

“Using drones also reduces the windshield-time, which means it reduces the volume of trucks on the roads as you can cover more ground with less people,” Roe said.

Automated inspection reduces costs and increases efficiency. Compared to an individual carrying out a manual inspection, the efficiency of drone inspection using software analytics is three to five times greater, Roe explained.

Finally, using digital tools for inspection provides an environmental benefit.

“Increasing the efficiency of inspecting processes enables operators to focus more of their valuable time on fixing problems instead of trying to identify them. This and the reduction of trucks on the road can add immediate environmental benefits,” he said.

Current projects
Avitas operates mostly in the U.S. for aerial inspection but plans on leveraging the global footprint of Baker Hughes for local and international expansion. The company has provided inspection processes for several customers in the Permian, Eagle Ford and Denver-Julesburg basins. For one customer, Avitas executes well pad inspections, demonstrating the ability to efficiently survey, run analytics and produce automated reports by the next morning, which are reviewed at staff meetings to outline daily plans. As Roe pointed out, these reports highlight a variety of issues that can impact safety, production or the environment.

In Prudhoe Bay, Avitas used a massive database of an operator’s historical operational, inspection and environmental data and it applied machine learning algorithms and physics-based models to provide predictions on wall loss and corrosion under insulation on their pipeline network, among other things. Avitas’ software also provided detailed analysis such as high and lower risk areas and percentage of certainty of an issue occurring at a particular time, which the operator used to refine its inspection programs and address areas of concern.