The Bakken's Airspace

The view from above reveals the role of private jet services and Unmanned Aerial Systems for Bakken workforce crews, pipeline management teams.
By The Bakken magazine staff | September 18, 2014

The skies over the Bakken are busy. Newly created direct flights link the play’s hub cities to industry mainstays such as Houston and Denver, private jets shuttle oilfield personnel in and out of the region, and even local commercial and private flight services are thriving. Yet, the growing need for air-based services could be at the beginning of a new era. In 2013, enough gathering lines were laid to stretch from Seattle to Orlando, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources––and, for the foreseeable future, roughly 2,000 miles of gathering lines will be laid every year. New rules requiring geographical information pertaining to all lines has made pipeline gathering infrastructure the most likely growth sector for the Bakken’s air industry. Although it may appear as a futuristic notion today, the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the Bakken could be the next type of air service adopted in the play.

Opportunities Above
For energy firms under the clock, flight services can cut travel time for executives, geologists and oilfiled crews.


To accomplish more on land, some Bakken firms are taking to the air. Flight services are in high demand currently, experiencing an increase in sales, rentals and chartering services created for companies doing business in the Williston Basin.
Company executives, geologists and work crews in need of quick and effective access to the Bakken are relying on service jet companies such as Solaeris Aviation and Tempus Aircraft.

Solaeris began chartering flights to the Bakken in 2006. The Houston-based company originated as a small provider for an energy company and has since continued and grown with the energy market.

“We’ve only flown energy companies,” says Richard Ziskind, vice president of Solaeris Aviation. “We know their needs, we know their concerns, we know they’re very focused on safety and we know that they need flexibility and to be able to save time.”

Companies are taking advantage of jet services up the Bakken to fly executives for meetings, to fly geologists to their well sites and to deliver workers in to service wells. In the energy business, the biggest component is time, according to Solaeris. The company has designed its services to accommodate time management issues by offering flights to western North Dakota at any time of day. 

“A lot of the companies like our flexibility, to be able to put their executives on a flight, or their geologists on, and sometimes they even need us to help switch teams out between different oil plays,” says Ziskind.
Tempus, another flight services firm, is experiencing similar demands from clients working in the Bakken.

“We do trips of engineers and geologists. We also swap out crews—which is probably more of the contract stuff that we do,” said Phil Jordan, managing director of Tempus Aircraft Sales and Service. “You’ll have a crew that’s up in the Bakken that doesn’t live there. We’ll bring those six guys home and we’ll take six guys back up.”

Unique Service Options
Solaeris and Tempus both provide airplanes to companies under charter. Solaeris provides fractional ownership. Under the system, based on a company’s needs, a client can invest in a fraction of an airplane instead of buying the whole airplane. According to Ziskind, they also sell jet cards for companies that can’t afford to buy an airplane or do fractional ownership, in which they are able to buy a block of hours to use the aircraft.

“Fractional ownership is almost like a timeshare,” says Ziskind. “We guarantee them the use of a certain tail number whenever they need it based on the ownership they have of that airplane and they also get the advantage of the tax write-off of the airplane along with all of the other advantages of airplane ownership.”

With fractional ownership, companies can buy a quarter of an airplane or half of an airplane, and if they wish, they can eventually move up into owning their own airplane.

“What we usually see happen is one company will take it and another service provider splits it with them,” says Ziskind. “That's what we’re finding with the Bakken. A lot of the folks work hand-in-hand together so word about our services gets out.”
According to Jordan, when it comes to chartering flights, Tempus has a pretty standard service.

“We’re with the 24 hours, 7 days a week operation and we have crews standing by all the time,” said Jordan.  “When we talk to an oil company or an oil services company, we try to look at their entire operation and determine what kind of airplane would be best that would suit 75 percent of their missions and recommend charter, fractional, any of those things that would complement what they need to do.”

For Jordan and his team, energy firms or others from the Bakken have a general set of questions that all start with how one should get into commercial aviation use. The team goes beyond helping them determine the best airplane. “We help them make those decisions based not only what the airplane costs,” he says. The team also looks at passenger type and potential changes to the airplane that could make the flight experience better, “for their people who are on the road all the time.”
Designated Crews
Unlike Tempus, Solaeris is a one of the smaller-sized jet companies that charters to the Bakken. Running a smaller company creates the ability to focus on detail such as assigning specific crews to fly energy executives.

“Our pilots know the customers, and vice versa,” says Ziskind. “Our pilots take note of customer’s preferences too. If they know they’re carrying a certain individual and they know he likes to have a bag of chips on the seatback, they’ll put them there for him. We keep profiles of all of our customers—we’re aware of where they like to sit and what their food preferences are and we give that information to our pilots.”

Paying attention to detail in the jet services industry is crucial, with that knowledge, Solaeris also provides a help desk that’s available 24 hours, seven days a week—a service that is provided free of charge.

If a company asks Tempus about purchasing an airplane, the company can help manage and coordinate its entire transportation. Tempus can also designate a specific crew to that client. For on-demand charters, companies fly with the crews that are on call.
Although each jet company offers a different service, they all have a common mission: offering the best customer service.

“We want to exceed their expectations,” says Ziskind. “We want to give them such good service that they won’t envision themselves doing business with anyone else.”

A Booming Business
Solaeris is witnessing firsthand how the competitive energy market is impacting the aviation business.

“As a company, we try to look at what the other companies do not provide and then we work to provide those services,” says Ziskind. “A lot of times, our biggest hurdle has been acquiring aircraft fast enough to service these companies. It’s good in business to have more customers than product, but we need to catch up and grow a little bit more as a company.”

Tempus has also found itself in higher demand within the past couple years.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the demand for trips into that area,” said Jordan. “The airports and the infrastructure in the area has really grown to try to help accommodate the growth.”

For Solaeris, growing its fleet to meet the needs of customers and having a larger presence with an office is in the future.

“A lot of companies in the Bakken area are coming to us to contract us to be their flight department,” says Ziskind. “We professionally manage their flight department from pilot training to dispatching the airplanes for them to handing all the FAA records and safety audits.”
“Most of the airplanes we use aren’t 100 percent owned by us, there are only a couple that are,” says Jordan. “Most of them are people who have bought airplanes and have access capacity on it. It’s kind of like a vacation home, you lend out extra time when you’re not there. People do the exact same thing with airplanes. They’ll buy an airplane thinking they’ll need it 200 hours a year but an airplane, realistically, can fly 400 to 500 hours a year, so we’ll charter it when they’re not using it to people like oil companies and transportation companies.”

“Our customers really like not having branded planes because it’s private, you don’t know who’s coming in,” says Ziskind. “The energy business is very, very competitive, and everything has to be kept confidential so we try to maintain a high level of security and confidentiality with all the energy companies. If customers go with a larger jet service provider, other people [competitors] notice them more.”

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Cirrus Helps Investors
Cirrus Aircraft entered the airplane industry, in the early 1980s, as a kit manufacturer, and it has kept its business strategy in that area. While the company does not provide charter services to customers, it builds airplanes that oil companies and others can lease for their personal use. According to the company, a Cirrus SR22 can transport four adults to over 90 airports in North Dakota at 180 miles per hour.

“We save them time, stress and money and greatly increase their productivity and time on station,” said Todd Simmonds, executive vice president and chief customer officer of Cirrus. “Cirrus Aircraft can service a business with a new or preowned aircraft, with full or part-time pilots and also direct them to charter services on a four seat SR22.”

According to the company, chartered services are available with a Cirrus aircraft out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and will soon be out of Tioga, N.D., with Twin Cities Aviation.

The first aircraft sold directly tied to the Bakken area was for the transportation of a geologist and her company.

“One Cirrus owner is a geologist who needs to travel frequently to talk to investors who want her analysis of well potential,” said Simmonds. “Having the Cirrus with a corporate pilot allows her more time in front of the customers and with family instead of behind semi-trucks.”


Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine


The Future of Pipeline Monitoring
Unmanned aerial systems could become a Bakken standard


An early spring blizzard—proceeded by freezing rain that brought down trees and power poles—blasts through central and western North Dakota. The ice-covered roads drift shut and the wind chill falls below zero.
Somewhere on the barren prairie stands what resembles a large mail box on top of a high pole. As ground blizzard conditions begin to lessen, a door on the box pops open.

A multi-rotored, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) responds to orders given from hundreds of miles away. It launches and begins following a preprogrammed flight plan along the right-of-way of a pipeline carrying Bakken crude to the East.
A GPS transmitter feeding constant coordinates prevents the UAV from being blown off course. As it flies, onboard sensors sniff the air for any telltale sign of leaking hydrocarbons.

A video camera streams images back to a computer which analyzes the data for any changes along the right of way. Other sensors check for temperature variations and vegetation anomalies.

A large tree that fell during the storm catches the computer’s attention. It orders the UAV back to the precise GPS coordinates to take high-resolution photos and additional video of the scene from different heights and angles.

In Denver, a pipeline company engineer answers his smartphone and receives GPS coordinates of a potential problem. He’s soon looking at the photos, video and data collected by the sensors. Nothing indicates damage to the pipeline, but he sends instructions to have the problem investigated more closely as soon as the weather permits.

At the end of its 50-mile journey, the UAV guides itself to an empty hanger atop a pole. It lands, the door closes and the aircraft begins recharging its battery for tomorrow’s regularly scheduled inspection flight in the opposite direction.

If Zach Lamppa is correct, what might seem like a futuristic scenario isn’t far away from becoming standard operating procedure for the inspection of pipelines, transmission lines and other energy related infrastructure. Last spring, he received a $125,000 grant from the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Council to study the feasibility of using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for pipeline inspections.

“We are going to be collecting data for the protection of people and the environment, and to help our clients avoid potential catastrophes,” he says. “We’re detecting changes in vegetation and temperature to prevent leaks, not just to monitor the leaks that have already happened.”

Lamppa, owner of WCE Oilfield Services, has been in the pipeline industry since 2008. His company has more than 275 employees and offices in Fargo, Dickinson and Stanley. It lays pipeline, performs maintenance and site construction in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Texas.

“This isn’t conceptual anymore,” Lamppa says of the UAS project he’s spearheading. “We actually have the technology to do the pipeline monitoring. We can bring something to a pipeline client or an energy customer who can use the proprietary information we collect for their benefit.”

It has taken three and a half years to raise funds, assemble a team of partners and get to the point where Lamppa’s ideas can be field tested. The project received a boost last December when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated northeastern North Dakota as the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, making it one of six areas in the country where UAVs can be flown to research commercial applications.
“We have 18,000 miles of pipeline in the state of North Dakota,” Lamppa notes. “We’re in a perfect time, place and region for this to be happening.”

Early on, Lamppa took his idea for the project to the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences, which has a UAS technology program.

“I came to UND expecting to meet with one or two people,” Lamppa recalls. “When I showed up, there was a boardroom full of people. I figured that if I’m going to take this to another level, having a boardroom full of people is a good start.”

He’s also working with North Dakota State University which is researching UAS technology for precision agriculture and operates a UAV test site near Carrington.

In the private sector, Lamppa teamed up with Jerry Johnson, CEO of Farm Intelligence in Mankato, Minnesota. His company not only has experience developing software for precision agriculture applications, but also manufactures UAVs and sensors.

“We’re interested in North Dakota because two of the bigger industries are oil and agriculture, and these small UAVs are going to have an impact on both,” Johnson says.

Lamppa and Johnson formed Energy Intelligence specifically to look at the application of UAS technology in the energy industry.

“We’ve got software that allows us to take imagery, automatically analyze it and send alerts out,” Johnson says. “Somebody doesn’t have to sit down and look at every picture. The software can actually do the analysis for us.”

Sensors—the devices that enable a UAV to see or detect a potential problem—are another area in which Johnson provides expertise.

“A lot of people don’t realize in the UAV world that the sensors are the key item,” he explains. “With pipeline inspections, we’re looking for things that cause problems, such as vegetation, farming that’s too close to the right of way and construction, traffic or heavy rain that exposes the pipeline. There are a whole series of manmade objects or acts of God or vandalism that we can detect with our sensors.”

Will Semke, associate professor in the UND School of Engineering, has been working with Lamppa from the project’s beginning and believes that pipeline monitoring is a natural fit for UAS technology.

“Pipelines have a right-of-way associated with them,” he explains. “Nothing can be in those locations. Just like precision agriculture, it’s an application that puts you in a safer operating environment.”

Since coming to UND in 2000, Semke has been involved with developing sensor packages for aerospace applications. In recent years, he’s used his mechanical engineering background to focus UAS technology. 

“On any aerospace application, size, weight and power are always your big enemies,” he explains. “You don’t have enough of any of it. We’re always looking for innovative materials, reduced power consumption and making the payloads as small and compact as we can.”
UND’s electrical engineering department also assists with the development of circuits, power systems and data communications links for UAVs.

Although Lamppa is optimistic that flight tests might be conducted as early as this fall, there are other pieces of the puzzle that need to come together. One challenge is obtaining a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA to conduct test flights.

“The biggest hurdle to actually going out and initiating this work is the regulatory issue about where you can fly and under what conditions,” Semke explains. “Only a public entity like UND can get a COA from the FAA that allows us to operate. The UND aerospace school is working with the FAA to establish the appropriate guidelines.”

In addition, Lamppa says, “We’re looking for an energy company that would like to step up and work directly with us on the R&D to find the exact airframe, sensors and software to perform these duties. That’s going to be crucial to the development.”

It could be a pipeline company, an oil or gas producer or a U.S. Department of Transportation-regulated transfer company. 

“We’d be flying their assets and their right-of-way,” Lamppa says. “We definitely need their input on what they would like to see from us.”

Fortunately, Lamppa says the energy industry is beginning to understand the potential of UAS technology and is asking more sophisticated questions about it.

“They want to know what other applications they can do with UAS flights,” he notes. “Can we do depth of cover? Can we do GIS data and a general DOT inspection with one flight? The answer is yes. Those are the types of things we need to get across to potential energy clients during the proof of concept when we’re testing during the next year or two.”

Semke believes that by getting into UAS technology now and working with a university on the research and development level, Lamppa has a significant advantage.

“The FAA regulations are going to come,” he stresses. “The companies getting involved now and doing technology development will be the ones ahead of the game when the time comes to cash in on the commercialization component.”

Beyond that, Lamppa wants energy companies to ask: What is it worth to prevent a catastrophic spill?

“We want to improve asset monitoring. We want to increase pipeline safety. We want to become a key partner in identifying these risks,” he says. “If we can get one step ahead of some of the issues with older transmission or distribution lines, I think it will revolutionize the way pipelines are inspected.”


Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine



LW Survey plans for UAS use in Bakken
Canadian experience will translate south of the border


As with many businesses, LW Survey Co. has a website listing the services it provides potential customers in the oil and gas industry.

However, there’s one significant difference between its U.S. site and its Canadian counterpart: north of the border, LWS includes unmanned aerial system (UAS) among its services.
“The Canadian group is actually flying UAS up there,” says Eric Harnisch, vice president of corporate development for Pulsar International Boundary Inc. based in Duluth, Minnesota. Pulsar is the holding company for LWS and Spartan Engineering.

LWS, a 300-person, full-service surveying company, has an office in Minot to serve the Bakken. It specializes in oil and gas pipeline planning and route assessment. Spartan Engineering, Pulsar’s other branded entity, is its engineering arm.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) won’t be approving regulations for the commercial use of UAS until next year at the earliest. The agency has also been reluctant to grant certificates of authorization (COA) for test flights. The Canadian government, however, has adopted a different approach.

“It is legal and a fairly straightforward process to get permission to fly,” Harnisch says. “You fill out the paperwork, and typically within a week and a half, we’re allowed to do it on behalf of a client.”

LWS currently operates the Trimble UX5 and the Trimble X100 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) on its Canadian oil and gas projects. Data collected from the flights is used for site assessment, 4-D construction monitoring, topographical surveying and volume calculations.

The UAVs can carry a modified camera capable of acquiring near-infrared imagery. It’s combined with standard imagery and used for environmental assessment, spill delineation and vegetation health assessment.

According to LWS, UAS greatly reduces costs because it captures topographic data in a matter of hours compared to a matter of days for a survey crew. This not only decreases survey time, but also improves safety by eliminating the need for surveyors to operate in hazardous areas.

“Typically, our projects in Canada are in very remote areas where our clients want to look at the routing of a pipeline for a hundred miles,” Harnisch says. “It can get fairly expensive and difficult to get people out there.”

Using UAS to survey, LWS customers can find the best route for their pipelines by examining the topography and minimizing elevation along the route. Harnisch sees many different possibilities for the future use of UAS in the Bakken.

“What I see happening in North Dakota is that when a pipeline goes across somebody’s land, there’s a lot of discussion about what it looked like before and what it looked like after,” he says.

“Did the contractors put it back to what was promised? Did they seed it properly? UAS serves to document the construction and the reclamation of the property,” he explains. “We’re seeing a lot of interest for that in the construction side of the oil and gas.”

Harnisch also believes that UAS will become part of quality control in well pad construction. For example, “When you get done building, somebody has to go out there and make sure that the berms were built correctly.”

As for LWS, Harnisch says, “We will plan to use UASs commercially in the United States--specifically the Bakken with direct support from our Minot office—when the FAA approves and provides guidelines for their commercial use.”
Harnisch believes UAS technology will evolve in stages over the next 10 years. In the next three years, he expects the FAA to approve the use of small, lightweight UAVs, which have limited capabilities and must be operated within line of sight.

“What will probably happen within three to five  years is that manufacturers will convince the FAA that they have good sense-and-avoid systems, which means that they can actually see oncoming interference and make adjustments for it,” he says.

“In the five- to 10-year  year range, you’ll start seeing gas-powered UAVs that can fly for eight hours to cover a significant pipeline in North Dakota,” Harnisch predicts.

Unresolved regulatory issues continue to create uncertainty about when and how UAS can be used for commercial purposes in the national airspace. Some question why the FAA can’t follow Canada’s example and make an exception for the oil and gas industry to operate UAVs in remote, low-population areas.

“There is a frustration with trying to get the necessary approvals,” Harnisch notes. “I’ve heard comments from a lot of folks who feel that the UAS industry is wanting to move much faster than the FAA.”

But Harnisch also says there’s a growing realization of the difficulty in developing regulations that safely incorporate the new technology into the airspace on a national level.

“There’s a little more empathy that the FAA has only so much staff to process this at the same time they’re trying to take care of the entire airspace,” he adds.

So when can the U.S. oil and gas industry expect to use UAS technology to its advantage?

“It’s not a question of the technology being there,” Harnisch says. “It’s actually a matter of when it will get approved.”


Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine