Arctic oil explorers are using sophisticated technology to monitor their endeavors in the harsh environment—from unmanned drones to military-designed systems, even James Bond would be impressed.
Companies exploring Arctic waters off Alaska’s northern coast are employing cutting-edge technologies, including the first commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — drones, in the popular vernacular.
In late September ConocoPhillips conducted tests with the ScanEagle UAV in the Chukchi Sea in late September, in remote airspace 120 miles off the Alaska coast.
Earlier, Alaska Clean Seas, the industry spill cleanup cooperative for northern Alaska, tested the Puma UAV for use in potential offshore spill monitoring.
ScanRagle, developed by Boeing subsidiary Insitu Inc. and the smaller Puma AE, developed by California-based AeroVironment Inc. are the first UAVs certified by the US Federal Aviation Agency for commercial use, although so far only over remote offshore waters.
One technology companies are using in the Arctic, an undersea acoustic monitoring system used by BP and Shell to track migrating bowhead whales, was adapted from US Navy systems used to track submarines.
Advantages of UAVs for industry are the same as for the military. The devices can fly for long periods on little fuel over considerable range. They are quiet, which is important for monitoring wildlife, and they don’t expose flight crews to risk, unlike manned aircraft.
ScanEagle weighs 40 pounds and can stay aloft up for 18 hours on a gallon and a half of fuel, ConocoPhillips has said. It can operate out to 100 miles from its radio ground controller, but more typically would operate at ranges of 20 to 25 miles, people familiar with the systems said.
The tests in September with the ScanEagle involved launching and retrieval of the UAV from the Westward Wind, a research vessel operated by Olgoonik Fairweather LLC, a contractor. Tests were also done of the sensor payload and navigation system, with real-time video and telemetry sent to ground controllers on the vessel.
The UAV is launched with a pneumatic-type device and landed with a hook off a beam from the vessel.
“The UAV could be useful in our monitoring and data collection efforts, with the benefit of improved safety and lower noise levels as compared with using manned aircraft,” ConocoPhillips’ Alaska president Trond-Erik Johansen said in a statement.
Another aerial technology system being deployed in Alaska by Olgoonik Fairweather LLC is the DA-42, a larger aircraft also equipped with sensors. The aircraft now operates with a human crew but can be flown unmanned as soon as the FAA issues a certificate, said Steve Wackowski, the company’s operations manager.
Last summer the DA-42, manned at the time, was used to monitor Arctic sea ice to help tugs and barges supporting ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson project find an opening in ice to reach open water in the Beaufort Sea.
Once the barges neared Point Thomson, east of Prudhoe Bay, the DA-42 operators, who were overhead, used sensors to help the tug captains find their way to the dock through fog, Wackowski said.
Fairweather also used the DA-42 and its sensors to locate seals on North Slope rivers for Repsol, which is exploring onshore, and also tracked elusive beluga whales in Cook Inlet.
The Arctic offshore whale monitoring by BP and Shell relies on an undersea acoustics system declassified by the Navy some years ago. BP pioneered the technique in 2000, deploying an array of underwater listening devices several miles off the company’s Northstar field offshore production island, in the Beaufort Sea.
The devices record sounds made by bowhead whales as they migrate through the area and determine, through analysis the timing of sounds recorded, the location of whales and any deviation caused by undersea industrial noises.
BP has been using the system for over a decade, said Bill Streever, the company’s lead Alaska scientist.
BP wanted to find out how the whales react to low-frequency sounds from offshore rigs as well as higher-frequency sounds from vessels, Streever said. Shell recently adopted the system for its whale research.
Another technology innovation is use of infrared sensors mounted on helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft to find polar bear and seal dens, Streever said. Companies are required by agencies to locate animal dens before building ice roads, but dens can be hidden in the winter landscape and in bad weather.
“Low-tech” systems are also used — trained dogs, with their superior senses.
Streever said government agency representatives promote the use of dogs to locate seal and polar bear dens, but he doesn’t recommend the approach for BP. Too many things can go wrong. “I wouldn’t want to be there for the first dog-bear interaction,” he said.