Like an army, science needs the high ground. This is true when it comes to oil exploration and especially so in the rugged landscape of Norway. The Virtual Outcrop Geology (VOG) group at the Norwegian Centre for integrated petroleum research (CIPR) is working to capture this vantage point in a distinctly 21st century way, by using UAVs to seek out oil by helping geologists build 3D models of the terrain.
We tend to think of oil exploration as taking place on desert plains or out in the ocean, but finding oil deposits depends on having a comprehensive understanding of local geology, which is one reason why the question of how much oil we have left sparks so much argument – there’s still so much we don’t know about most of the Earth. By studying the Norwegian terrain and matching it up with other data, such as that gathered from seismographs and core drilling, geologists can build up a three-dimensional picture of what’s going on beneath the ground – both on land and under the sea.
“A landscape’s surface often reflects what lies beneath ground and corresponds with the rocks below the seabed. When we have an overview of the rocks and minerals in one area, it is far easier to make estimates about where to find oil and how the oil flows,” said Simon Buckley, senior researcher at CIPR and head of the VOG group.
Such surveys can be arduous, time-consuming and expensive, with teams of experts tramping over mountains to take measurements with optical instruments, laser scanners, infrared sensors and digital cameras. Many times, the terrain is too mountainous for the teams to get everywhere, so helicopters have to be hired to fill in the gaps.
The researchers describe the drones as being like a camera tripod in the sky. That may sound trivial, but gaining the ability to survey terrain straight down from a height is a tremendous advantage. The information is much clearer, it’s easier to match images to one another and to correlate with ground images, and it’s easier to build up stereoscopic images from which 3D models can be made. A UAV not only allows geologists to do this more cheaply than with a helicopter, but also at heights and in areas where using a ‘copter would be too dangerous, if not impossible.
Similar to techniques used for mineral surveys in Switzerland and Germany, the helicopter-like UAV used by CIPR carries the scanners, sensors and cameras needed for the survey, and helps geologists to build a more precise 3D model of the area that can be flown over and studied virtually. In this way, they can learn about the types of rock present, the thickness of sediments, and other aspects of geological formations to help in finding oil deposits.
The main restrictions on the drones are regulatory. The ground controllers who operate the UAV and its cameras need to be certified in a simulator by the Norwegian aviation authorities and must exercise extreme care in avoiding populated areas.
CIPR is a joint venture between the University of Bergen (UiB) and Uni Research.
Source: University of Bergen
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