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Introducing drones to seismic

Friday, July 8, 2016

Onshore seismic recording is very expensive compared to marine seismic, says UK start-up Feather Tech. Perhaps the economics could be improved using advanced satellite data to plan vibroseis routes, and drones to harvest data from wireless seismic recording systems.

UK start-up company Feather Tech is researching ways to use advanced satellite and drone technology in seismic recording.

Satellite data could be used to plan vibroseis routes in more detail before the survey starts, including making sure the trucks do not have to go up inclines over more than 10 degrees, which can tip them over, and they do not get stuck in quicksand.

Drones flying overhead could take a fast upload of data from wireless seismic recording systems - and perhaps ultimately they could be used to automatically place wireless seismic recording systems in the ground, like Amazon is planning to make deliveries.

From Imperial College

All of the staff of Feather Tech are formerly from, or currently at, Imperial College in London.

Serje Heyer, CEO, graduated in applied physics in 2010 and worked since then in private equity, financing oil and gas exploration consortiums in former Russian states and West Africa

Pisak Chermprayong, chief technology officer, is doing a PhD in aerial robotics at Imperial. He was part of a team which built a drone which could fly, float and dive, and was one of 6 finalists in the United Arab Emirates 'Drones for Good' award in February 2016.

Thayne Thanthawarithisai, chief scientist, graduated top of his class in electrical engineering at Imperial College and is currently a PhD student.

A fourth staff member is Joshua Burrill, a lawyer, who helps the company with legislative issues connected to drones, of which there are many.

The company also works closely with a company called Terrabiotics, which specialises in gathering data about the ground from satellite check. It is led by Gareth Morgan, who has a PhD in remote sensing from Imperial College.

Feather Tech started in business developing technology to combine Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones), with wireless sensor systems, although it did not immediately see that onshore seismic recording could be an application for it.

The starting problem to tackle is the cost of onshore seismic recording. Offshore, costs can be $5,000 / km2. But onshore, costs start at $20,000/km2 for simple environments like desert, rising to $250,000/km2 for high mountainous regions. Placing and retrieving seismic recording devices takes a lot of manpower and time, compared to operating a marine vessel.

Planning surveys

Feather Tech starts with the idea that the cost of seismic surveys could be reduced if hazards were better identified before the survey started.

There are stories about vibroseis trucks getting stopped in salt pans (known as 'Sabkha' in the Arabic world). These can contain a thick layer of mud hidden below a crust of salt, which have destroyed seismic recording trucks.

The quicksand can be hard to see visually, because from eye level it looks the same as other desert.
But it can be seen clearly by analysing data recorded by satellite, including an analysis of the visual and infrared light given off by the sand.

Feather Tech, working together with partner company Terrabiotics, can analyse the area where you plan to record in advance, and flag up the areas of salt pan, so you can plan the survey around it.

Satellite data can also be used to map terrain. Vibroseis trucks can tip over if there is an incline of over 10 degrees. Using images from 2 different satellites, you can build a high resolution terrain model with resolution of under 50cm and grids of under 1m, which is enough to differentiate surfaces with an incline of more than 10 degrees, Mr Heyer said.

Of course, all of this work can be done before you even entering the country.

Feather Tech did a project for a client looking for just quicksand and high inclines, and could do it at 85 per recent less cost than the traditional way of doing it he said.

This work also proves 70 per cent cheaper than scanning terrain using LIDAR (laser based) surveys, the standard method.

After working with Feather Tech, one oil major client no longer uses LIDAR to scan before doing seismic surveys, Mr Heyer said.

Wireless seismic recording

Feather Tech also wants to make wireless seismic recording easier.

Wireless seismic recording promises a lot of cost reduction over cabled recording, because it avoids the effort and trouble of cables. But it (arguably) has the disadvantage that you don't know everything is working properly or not until you retrieve the recording devices after the survey is finished. Perhaps partly for this reason, wireless seismic has under 10 per cent market share of the onshore seismic recording market, he said.

If data is communicated during the survey, either quality control data or the entire seismic recording, the data needs to go long distances horizontally, and can be blocked by vegetation.

Feather Tech is developing technology to send data from the seismic recording devices upwards to a UAV flying overhead, where the data can be stored

It is developing drone technology which can actually place seismic recording devices in the field. The difficultly level of this depends on how simple the ground is (ie it is much easier to place a wireless receiver on flat concrete than a grassy mountainside), Mr Heyer said. The robot can also place signal boosters where they are needed.

The nodes could then be collected by robot.

It will all lead to improved company safety (less people in the field), less environmental damage from cables and heavy equipment in the field, and less cost.

Associated Companies
» Feather Tech
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