Drones deliver high hopes

CMU studies potential for use on oil, gas sites

Colorado Mesa University associate professor Tamera Minnick, left, and CMU visiting research professor Rich Alward retrieve a drone from its landing spot during CMU-funded research into the use of the devices in evaluating the level of success of oil and gas site revegetation efforts.



Richard Alward and Tamera Minnick were preparing for takeoff last month when the usual preflight checklist strayed from the expected — “takeoff area clear?” — to the unexpected.

“SD card?”

“SD card’s in.”

The latter was important because this wasn’t a regular airplane about to fly, but a drone the two were using to take hundreds of pictures in piñon, juniper and sagebrush country in the Piceance Basin highlands southwest of Meeker.

They’ll be using those photos in a project funded by Colorado Mesa University to evaluate the potential for using drones as another tool for monitoring the success of efforts to revegetate and reclaim oil and gas well sites. Such efforts are important for purposes such as erosion and weed control and creation of wildlife habitat.

The research is being supported by a $25,865 grant from CMU’s Unconventional Energy Center, and in-kind contributions of nearly $30,000 in time and expertise from a number of project partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Draganfly Innovations drone company, and Langton-Moore Consulting.

The project is yet another example of how technology can transform how scientific work is done, and comes as agencies such as the BLM are increasingly looking to the use of drones as a tool for doing a variety of different jobs.

The research into drone use in reclamation is being led by Minnick, an associate professor of environmental science and technology at CMU, and Alward, her husband and an ecologist who is a visiting research professor at CMU.

COMPARING APPROACHES

The work on BLM land on a mid-August day involved flying over a number of well pads in various stages of reclamation, and directing the drone to fly preprogrammed, overlapping transects and take hundreds of images that can then be stitched together for use in analyzing things such as how plant regrowth is proceeding. Images incorporating both visible and infrared wavelengths can be analyzed to determine whether plants are green or dying, what types of species are growing, the existence of bare spots, and other measures of the degree to which reclamation efforts are succeeding.

Researchers then will compare that information to the results of on-the-ground reclamation survey work, as well as satellite images. That will let them judge the accuracy of their interpretations of drone data and assess the advantages and disadvantages of drone use versus these other methods in individual circumstances.

While it’s hard to beat ground-based surveys for accuracy, that work is labor-intensive and can require extrapolating localized results to larger areas. Alward said drones might prove to be a way to gather a similar amount of information over far greater areas.

Alward, who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a drone pilot, said he’s required to keep a drone within his line of sight while flying it, but that still can allow for extending out more than a half-mile, enough to cover “a whole bunch of well pads” that otherwise would have to be individually visited for reclamation assessment work.

In some cases flyovers might reveal problems such as erosion or a failure of the desired species to grow, meaning follow-up work might be required, he said.

Satellite imagery provides value as a means of landscape-level assessment of reclamation work. But the resolution of oil and gas reclamation imagery from satellites can be about 30 meters per side for each pixel. Alward said that’s about 8 pixels per well pad, whereas drone photos can have a resolution of 5 centimeters per pixel, enough to get multiple pixels of individual plants.

In addition, someone doing reclamation evaluation work has little control over when satellite images are taken, whereas a drone could be used precisely when wanted to determine things such as whether reclamation efforts are complete and a company’s reclamation bonding should be released.


POTENTIAL AID TO INDUSTRY

The drone research could particularly prove important to oil and gas companies operating within the jurisdiction of the White River Field Office in Meeker. A fairly new oil and gas amendment to that office’s resource management plan provides that companies can continue with their development plans as long as they’re showing they’re staying ahead of things in terms of reclaiming land they’ve disturbed, said James Roberts, a supervisory natural resource specialist for the office.

“We’ve been finding out that operators have identified it’s a large expense to have annual revisits to a well pad until success criteria (are) met, whereas if you could do this with a drone and get the same results it would probably exponentially reduce the overall cost potentially for the both BLM and for the operators” to do that work, he said.

In some cases, a quick flight might identify situations where the BLM or an oil and gas company would want to follow up with a site visit for a closer look, he said.


A FLURRY OF USES

Roberts said reclamation is just one of a number of areas where drones are beginning to be evaluated and in some cases put to work by agencies such as the BLM. Other examples including mapping of wildfires, checking reclamation progress along pipelines, monitoring species in remote areas that are hard to get to, mapping oil and gas spills, counting greater sage-grouse, and taking pictures of cultural sites that are hard to reach on cliff walls.

As Roberts listed these many uses, a golden eagle swooped down at the CMU research site in hot pursuit of a raven, both birds showing more aerial agility than any drone while reminding Roberts that drones have been used for mapping bird nests as well.

Minnick and Alward cited other uses for drones as well, such as delineating wetlands areas and monitoring tamarisk removal efforts along rivers or bark beetle outbreaks in forests.

“I think they’re going to have a role in a lot of different things,” Alward said of drones.

He views the research project as evaluating what that role might be when it comes to reclamation work, “and what we need to learn to make sure that it’s fulfilling that role.”

Roberts said the important thing from the BLM’s perspective is that the agency be able to determine what types of standards are in place for accomplishing the purposes of whatever application a drone is being used for.

For Alward, learning new technologies such as flying drones and operating drone cameras has added a new twist to his career as a scientist.

“There’s lots of stuff that I couldn’t even have imagined when I was in college, so that means it’s exciting. You have to learn all this new stuff,” he said.

Also participating in the research project is Gray Koenemann, a CMU senior who is studying environmental science and GIS, or geographic information systems, technology. He’s working on the project as a paid employee, not a volunteer.

The St. Louis native long has been interested in environmental work, but got interested in GIS because the opportunity was there to study it at CMU.

“It seemed like more and more public lands offices are using the GIS technology; it just seemed like a really productive skill” to learn, he said.

He’s still trying to figure out what kind of graduate degree he might be able to pursue that integrates environmental science with GIS and other technologies.

“But doing a project like this is certainly a step in the right direction,” he said.

Said Minnick, “He’s coming into the project with a lot of great skills. This will help him enhance those skills.”


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