With heightened interest in offshore oil and gas exploration coinciding with elevated awareness of the need to protect marine wildlife, oil companies are scrambling to find ways of meeting government-mandated stipulations for wildlife protection. And, in the Alaska Arctic, the protection of Native subsistence hunting of marine mammals such as the bowhead whale is a major issue.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, could prove to be a pivotal technology in the drive to reconcile oil exploration with environmental and subsistence hunting concerns.
Issues relating to the protection of arctic marine wildlife came to a head in the 2006 open water season in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, when ConocoPhillips, Shell and GX Technologies all embarked on new offshore seismic survey programs. Marine seismic surveying involves firing underwater air guns that can disturb or agitate wildlife.
For the 2006 seismic programs, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations that included requirements for aerial surveys or acoustic monitoring of underwater sounds, to detect the presence of marine mammals and avoid harassment of those mammals.
The IHA stipulations included, under some circumstances, a new requirement to monitor a zone within which the sound level from the seismic air gun shots would exceed 120 decibels. In earlier years monitoring was only required in a zone with sound levels exceeding 180 decibels — the new 120 decibel requirements greatly increased the area around the seismic activities to be monitored and could have required aerial wildlife surveillance over huge expanses of ocean.
Safety concernsBut operating such an extensive aerial survey operation in the remote Chukchi and Beaufort seas, regions with meager search and rescue capabilities, poses major risks to the aircrews. As a consequence, Shell opted in 2006 to run just a limited air surveillance program, using a saw tooth flight pattern near the coast, while ConocoPhillips decided not to carry out any offshore aerial surveillance at all.
“ConocoPhillips was definitely unwilling to fly manned aircraft in the Chukchi Sea,” Michael Faust of Shell told the NMFS Arctic Open Water Seismic Meeting on Oct. 24. “As a company we’ve looked at a variety of health, safety and environment criteria and we just basically made the decision that … we don’t think we can rescue someone if they go down.”
But what about the use of drones?
Both ConocoPhillips and Shell are aggressively investigating this option as a potential win-win solution for offshore surveillance: drones pose no safety risk to flight crews and could operate at low altitudes without disturbing wildlife.
Faust explained that the use of drones by the U.S. military for surveillance in Iraq is a factor that is driving rapid development of unmanned aerial vehicle technology.
“There have really been significant advances in this technology over the past few months,” Faust said.
Insitu A-20ConocoPhillips has chosen a vehicle called the Insitu A-20 for its unmanned aerial vehicle initiative. Insitu drones have flown more than 3,500 missions in Iraq, with more than 20,000 flight hours, Faust said.
Each drone has a 10-foot wingspan, with swept-back wings, a pusher propeller and a 4-foot long fuselage. The vehicle comes packed in a carrying case and can be assembled for flight in about two minutes by simply plugging the wings into the fuselage.
The 40-pound vehicle can fly at any altitude up to 16,400 feet. A tiny 1.8-horsepower gasoline engine powers the machine to a cruise speed of about 50 knots, with an endurance of about 20 hours with full fuel, Faust said. The power unit emits very little sound.
“These things fly at, say, 1,000 feet and you can’t see them, you can’t hear them. I don’t think there’s any issue at all with these aircraft observing whales,” Faust said.
A pneumatic catapult can launch the vehicle from just about any kind of site, including a small boat at sea. The catapult uses a pneumatic pressure of about 55 pounds per square inch and can be pumped up like a bicycle tire — press a button on the catapult and the vehicle launches, Faust explained.
The vehicle has an on-board GPS navigation system that, among other things, can guide the vehicle into a long bungee cord that acts as the vehicle retrieval system — hooks attached to the wingtips snag the bungee cord, thus leaving the vehicle dangling from the bungee at the retrieval site.
As with the launch system, the retrieval system could be operated on a vessel at sea.
Camera turretA camera on a rotating mount sits in a transparent turret underneath the drone’s fuselage. A radio control system enables a ground or ship-based operator to point the camera in any direction using a joystick control. The operator can also zoom the camera lens in and out. A software image-stabilization system ensures rock-steady images, even when shooting at telephoto range from a moving and bouncing aircraft. And the guidance system enables the aircraft to circle a subject of interest, while the camera continuously points at the subject.
“They click on a location and the plane immediately goes into its orbital mode around what you’re targeting and will keep that in the center of your image,” Faust said.
A system of interchangeable cameras includes a conventional camera for daylight use, an infrared camera and a low-light camera. A synthetic aperture radar system for use on the vehicle is under development, Faust said.
Although the prime motivation for using drones is to enable safe airborne surveillance over the ocean, the 20-hour flight duration of the unmanned vehicles would also enable dramatically increased observation times compared with manned aircraft, Faust said. In addition to the long flight duration, a drone could be fully operated from a vessel conducting seismic operations.
“It can be based off a boat 30 miles offshore right in the seismic operation,” Faust said. “So, you’re not flying 50 percent of your fuel out there and back.”
The drone operators onboard a vessel would see live observations and would be able to immediately alert the vessel captain of any impending wildlife encounters. And the imaging technology would capture a continuous record of everything observed, complete with GPS coordinates of the observations.
But Faust stressed that, despite the potential efficiencies of the drone system, ConocoPhillips does not see the use of drones as a cost-cutting exercise.
“It’s not cheaper than manned aircraft, in fact it’s probably more expensive than manned aircraft today,” Faust said. “… We’re going to spend a lot of money to try to make it as good or even better than manned observations.”
FAA approvalSo, given the availability of proven drone technology and what appear to be overwhelming benefits from the use of that technology, why not start using the technology immediately?
One major issue is approval for the use of the drones inside U.S. airspace — there are serious safety concerns regarding the possibility of tiny, inconspicuous, unmanned vehicles buzzing around in airspace that conventional aircraft also use. The Federal Aviation Administration is currently working hard to develop standards and airworthiness certification for drones, Faust said.
“Right now … UASs (unmanned aerial systems) are not allowed in U.S. airspace … for any commercial or private use. They’re just not allowed,” Faust said.
However, the remoteness of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will likely prove an advantage in resolving this particular issue — there is almost no low-altitude offshore flying done in these regions. In fact, the airspace below 5,500 feet and more than 12 miles offshore is uncontrolled, Faust said.
The FAA has said that it has jurisdiction over this uncontrolled airspace and that use of drones in the airspace would require an FAA certificate of authorization (or COA), Faust said. ConocoPhillips applied for a COA for testing the drones in the fall of 2006 but at the time of the open water meeting that COA had not been issued. Meantime, ConocoPhillips is preparing a COA application for 2007.
The suitability of the Arctic offshore as a region for flying drones opens the possibility of using the area for drone research. That possibility has caught the attention of the Alaska congressional delegation and spurred the delegation into pushing for FAA approval of the technology.
“The Alaska delegation has been working very hard to create a dedicated UAS site in Barrow,” Faust said.
Testing neededThe other obstacle to using drones for wildlife monitoring is the lack of a track record in this type of application — extensive testing is needed to determine the effectiveness of drones in locating and counting animals. In fact, one of the NMFS delegates at the open water meeting pointed out that NMFS would need to see test results before it could incorporate the use of drones into its approved IHA wildlife monitoring techniques.
ConocoPhillips plans to start testing the drone technology in the Chukchi Sea or another suitable location offshore Alaska this year.
The objective is to try flying the drones in varying sea conditions; test the operation of the vehicles in different weather conditions; test the cameras in difficult lighting conditions; and find the limitations of both the drones and the flight crew. The testing will compare whale counts between drone surveillance and surveillance from manned aircraft.
And Shell plans to use some military airspace in Washington’s Puget Sound this winter to test drone wildlife surveillance.
Michael Macrander from Shell said that the company hopes to obtain statistics on the effectiveness of the technology by counting buoys used to simulate whales. Counting would be done from a variety of different altitudes.
Faust commented that, ultimately, testing would entail operational use of the technology.
“This is the best thing out there today and, if we want to overcome whatever its shortcomings are, we’ve got to fly it, we’ve got to monitor it, we’ve got to use it in real live situations for an extended period of time, to truly understand what are the issues and then get those issues resolved,” Faust said.
Long-term contractConocoPhillips has established a long-term contract with Fairweather Leasing to provide UAS services, Faust said.
“We’ve made a long-term commitment to this technology and actually helped push it forward, because we think it has a huge potential impact in the way we do our business in remote areas,” Faust said. Faust commented that the technology could find application in wildlife monitoring around facilities such as drilling rigs, as well as being used in support of seismic operations.
ConocoPhillips now has five of the Insitu drones, plus flight crews, spare parts, launchers and a range of cameras, Faust said. And the equipment vendors have a “can do” attitude to resolve problems, with a motivation to break into this new market for the technology, he said.
“We believe we’re really on the cusp right here of ushering in a new era in research and mammal monitoring,” Faust said. “We believe that this technology is going to move forward very rapidly and be extremely important for monitoring in remote areas.”