Advances in technology and techniques such as the shift from crosslinked gels to slickwater fracs, unmanned aerial systems to detect methane leaks and simul-frac—to name a few—have helped to transform U.S. shale plays.

Where the industry goes next in terms of technology could include more automation, emissions detection upgrades and collaboration with industries outside of oil and gas. Goals of staying economically competitive and gaining efficiency, however, would remain for U.S. shale players and oilfield service companies, according to a panel of experts from Avitas, Total Sands Solutions and XRI Holdings at Hart Energy’s recently held DUG Permian Basin and Eagle Ford conference.

The next potential leading-edge technology could include a combination of continuous emissions monitoring and some type of top-down drone or fixed-wing surveillance, according to Jennifer Stewart, vice president of strategic growth for Avitas—a Baker Hughes venture.

“Then you’ll reconcile the two somehow because if you’re really truly committed to reducing emissions, then flying over once or twice or three times a year isn’t really going to cut it,” Stewart said after pointing out that each type of system—drones, satellites and onsite monitoring—has its pros and cons. “You need something that’s on 24 hours a day that’s going to tell you that you’ve got a problem and that you got to go fix it.”

With unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, employees looking for leaks already no longer have to travel around sites with a handheld camera looking for leaks and tagging them for repair. UAVs gather such data during flyovers. A 3D digital twin of the asset being inspected can also be created, Stewart said, enabling users to “zoom in onto various components, back it up, spin it around and use that for all kinds of applications, looking for vegetation encroachment, loss of containment, activity on the site that you didn’t expect to be there.”

John Durand, president and chief sustainability officer for Midland, Texas-based XRI, sees the potential for more uses for produced water, teaming up with peers, regulators and others. The full-cycle water management and midstream company is working with the New Mexico Produced Water Consortium, which aims to fill knowledge gaps needed for regulations for produced water generated from oil and gas operations.

“That’s something we’ll be doing, I’m sure, with the Texas Produced Water Consortium, which just was approved in this past legislature,” Durand said. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity, I think, to test new technologies.”

Today, there’s no “black box of magical treatment,” he added. “With slickwater [fracs], it’s readily accepted by the operators that we’re turning that produced water back to where it’s residing with the hydrocarbons for the last millions of years,” noting it’s cleaned up to remove suspended solids, iron or what’s needed by customers. Lowering costs also adds to efficiency.

Working with the agriculture sector to find beneficial ways to reuse produced water would also be a positive, according to Durand. He stressed that it’s important not just to “line pockets and build business” but also for social and community needs.

“We’ve got to continue innovating,” Durand said. “We’ve got to continue learning best practices and new practices in order to become more efficient.”

For logistics, that may involve artificial intelligence in self-driving trucks, but don’t expect to see that anytime soon for specialty trucking like hauling sand, according to Stuart Weinman, CEO of Total Sand Solution.

“Going on a leased road is incredibly difficult with potholes and everything that’s going on,” Weinman said. Where he does see potential is maximizing assets as those in the sector wonder how long its driver shortage will last. It comes down to data.

“We’re collecting over a million data points a day and we have technology on the trucks that track that truck every minute,” said Weinman. “We have technology on well sites that’s tracking what’s going on that well site. … We know exactly how long it takes to get in and out of those mines. So, it’s just how are you using your data to most optimize your business?”

For Total Sand Solutions, it’s about being efficient with the tractor.

“As we move to the simul-frac world, we’ve got jobs that right now are providing 5,000 tons a day on location,” he said. “If you just do the math, you to have a truck unloaded on location every seven to eight minutes in that two to four hours cycle time.”

Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how simul-frac impacts the rest of the value chain, he said.

“For us in particular, if you’re doing 5,000 tons a day for 25 straight days and then they want to take three to six days off, what do you do with that 30,000 tons of sand?” Weinman asked.

“Do your peaks get higher and your valleys get lower? You just increase volatility,” he said. “So frac prices go down dramatically. What happens to the pricing in the rest of the value chain? I think over the next 12 months, it’s really going to be interesting to see just how this all plays out.”