Leveraging the Bakken's High Ground

Unmanned aerial systems provide a new tool in an era where information is power. UASs will provide opportunities for increased revenue through safe and efficient petroleum and natural gas exploration in the Bakken Formation.
By Mohammed A. Khan, Jr. | February 10, 2014

Unmanned aerial systems (UASs), also sometimes referred to as Unmanned aerial vehicles and “drones,” have transformed the modern context of monitoring wide geographic areas with persistent and long duration airborne capabilities. While manned aircraft will continue to play a key and essential role in all facets of air operations, there can be no doubt that UASs of all shapes and sizes will dominate the insatiably growing appetite for real time situational awareness. In an era where information is power, UASs will provide opportunities for increased revenue through safe and efficient petroleum and natural gas exploration in the Bakken Formation.

Bakken Imperative
The Bakken Formation encompasses an area of approximately 200,000 square miles, a huge swath of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. How is this area monitored, secured and managed? Certainly current terrestrial-based methodologies utilized to monitor the day-to-day operations in this wide expanse may indeed employ advanced technologies but lack the flexibility, wide area range, and persistence that UAS technologies now provide. Major companies like BP, Shell and others fully recognize the importance of UASs. In fact, BP has conducted small UAS technology testing focusing on pipeline inspection and safety in order to help crews evaluate operations status and maintenance requirements.

Having proven themselves as invaluable above the world’s battlefields, the UASs of today and tomorrow will continue to be utilized to provide highly capable sensors producing detailed geospatial situational awareness needed by a growing domestic and international customer base. UASs not only deliver technologically advanced situational awareness, but they provide these capabilities while also remaining scalable and affordable; therefore, they have absolute relevance in the domains of safe and profitable operations, maintenance, logistics, sustainment and modernization within the Bakken’s petroleum and natural gas industry.

The basic construct for an end-to-end unmanned aerial system is comprised of the platform, the sensor suite, the data links/data management/software analytic tools, and a command-and-control capability.

UAS platforms are widely available on the domestic and international market in all shapes, sizes, prices and capabilities. For very exclusive customers with government approvals in place, and with very robust fiscal resources, large UAS platforms like the Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk at about $35 million to $75 million per unit, provide exquisite mission capability. At the other end of the UAS platform size spectrum, Amazon’s “Prime Air” concept highlights the growing business case for leveraging small UAS platforms (at about $2,000 per unit) to support its mission and customer needs.

In order to support Bakken petroleum and natural gas industry requirements, small UASs, such as Boeing’s Scan-Eagle, or larger medium-altitude long endurance platforms such as the RQ-1 Predator, would certainly contribute to the needs of Bakken industries. Both platforms are capable of day and night missions that can last in excess of 15 hours while providing comprehensive monitoring of pipeline, oil rig and wells, infrastructure, road networks while aiding logistics facility management and security monitoring.

Sensor Suites
UAS platforms host a wide variety of sensor suites that would be exceptionally relevant to the needs of Bakken industries. The only limiting factor for the hosting of a sensor suite by a platform is the sensor suite’s size, weight and power requirements. With the seemingly endless growth and evolution in both the platform and sensor suite capabilities, customers now have the ability to acquire tailored solutions specific to their needs, and financial resources.

Camera systems, with high-resolution visual capabilities, are the most popular sensor suites in the UAS domestic and international marketplace. Depending upon customer needs, requirements can be satisfied by scalable sensor technology from small off-the-shelf cameras to complex and robust turreted systems. Many UAS platforms are able to host day and nighttime imaging sensor suite capabilities. The ability to image in both daytime and at night allows for sustained operations and is critically important for flexible and responsive UAS capability. The voracious demand for imagery is growing exponentially in the UAS marketplace and its applications to the Bakken are obvious.

Within the petroleum, natural gas and mining industries, a growing UAS sensor suite requirement is for highly capable hyperspectral imaging systems in the mid- and long-wave infrared spectrums. These very capable systems contribute to safe, cost-effective and environmentally responsible resource exploration. In the event of petroleum and natural gas exploration anomalies, these highly sensitive systems can detect spectral irregularities and provide accurate and actionable situational awareness for emergency response.

Multiple, Tailored Data Tools
UAS platform capability to store data from the sensor suite and compress, process and transmit the data can also be tailored to a customer’s needs. The question is whether the data is needed in real time, or if a customer can afford to wait until the data after the UAS mission is completed and the data is downloaded from on-board storage.

For real time requirements, the information ingested requires an on-board data link technology to transmit via line-of-sight technology, or by leveraging satellite communication relay links to ground control stations and ground data terminals. Terminals may also include smart phone application technology). The disseminated data collected by the UAS platform sensor suite is either received in its real time “raw” data format, or is managed by some level of software analytics tool. Agile software analytic tools are critical to making data received actionable.

Many domestic and international software analytics companies provide solutions to making data actionable for customers. The key is to ensure the software provides the kind of actionable data that is required and needed by the customer. For the Bakken’s broad exploration efforts, this data needs to be displayed in what is termed by many in the UAS community as a “common operating picture.” This COP shows disparate geospatial data (potentially including light detection and radar (LiDAR) information, from visible, infrared, hyperspectral and space-based imaging technologies in a layered display. The COP then overlays this information with geophysical, geomagnetic and seismic data and provides notifications to alert exploration opportunities and anomalous events.

Command and Control
The ability to safely and responsibly command and control UASs is critical, and is at the forefront of the ongoing United States national dialogue on airspace management. On Dec. 30, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that North Dakota was designated as one of the six test sites for UASs that will assist in the research efforts aimed at integrating unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft in the national airspace. This announcement promises to be very beneficial for the Bakken’s future opportunities to operate UAS technology for the benefit of petroleum and natural gas exploration.

The nerve center of UAS operations is the ground control station, which can vary in size depending upon the systems complexity and may require a robust dedicated fixed base facility, a mobile capability, or a smaller more portable and compact command and control element. A vast majority of UAS operators have multiple command and control stations in order to ensure redundancy in operations—and considering the superb ongoing efforts in UAS mission areas by the University of North Dakota, here is an opportunity for Bakken industries to collaborate with a prestigious aerospace institution to help develop a common UAS concept of operations.

UAS operations are globally expanding at an explosive pace and are readily recognized as the fastest growing market in the aerospace industry. The Bakken’s petroleum and natural gas industry has the perfect opportunity to invest in and harvest the benefits of this capability to greatly fortify its profitable, safe, secure and environmentally responsible exploration activities.


Author: Mohammed A. Khan, Jr.
Colonel, USAF (Retired)
Senior Director, Government, Commercial and International Business Development,
ATK Space Systems Division