Aerial drones developed to locate deep-sea oil and gas (photos)

HOUSTON — Drones soon could make waves in the North Sea, the latest oil-rich region to test the unmanned flying machines’ use in locating and extracting oil and gas reserves.

Scottish researchers have developed drones that analyze remote rock formations from the sky to better understand what’s occurring in offshore rock formations.

Data about offshore rock layers, buried beneath miles of sea and earth, are difficult to collect. The drones assist by analyzing similar rock cliffs that are above the sea but in inaccessible and often dangerous locations, said University of Aberdeen geoscientist John Howell.

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“To solve this problem we look at similar rock units which occur in cliffs above sea level and we use the drone to make extremely detailed 3-D models, which we can then adapt for the subsurface,” Howell said in a written statement. ”This gives us a much better idea of what conditions are like between these two bore holes and then allows us to predict how the oil will follow and how much we can recover.”

The drone-collected data is used to produce virtual maps of deep-sea rock formations that are accurate within less than a few milimeters, Howell said.

Eight tiny motors rotate the blades that allow the drones to hover. Gyroscopes keep the computer bodies stabilized. Each is equipped with two cameras that collect audio and 3-D visuals to produce maps of the rock formations.

The drones are valued at about 10,000 British pounds ($16,350) each.

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“The overall project’s goal is to develop a fully searchable database of these relevant rock formations which will help oil companies build better models of the subsurface and improve recovery from oilfields,” Howell said.

University of Aberdeen scientists are working in partnership with academics at the University of Bergen in Norway to develop and test the drones. The effort is part of the school’s SAFARI project, which began in the late 1980s and is supported by 24 oil companies.

The school said the drones will be in full use by the end of 2014.