An Avitas Systems drone sits ready to fly into action in the Permian for Shell.
When reflecting on the future of large-scale use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, one envisions inspecting infrastructure without personnel and surveying vast stretches of land faster than ever before. However, the ability to deliver these applications requires something that was previously prohibited under US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation: flying drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Until now.

When reflecting on the future of large-scale use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, one envisions inspecting infrastructure without personnel and surveying vast stretches of land faster than ever before. However, the ability to deliver these applications requires something that was previously prohibited under US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation: flying drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Until now.

“This is a tremendous achievement made possible through collaboration with the FAA, GE, Avitas Systems, AiRXOS and Shell,” said Gretchen Watkins, Shell Executive Vice President of Unconventionals. “Flying drones beyond the visual line of sight for multi-mission surveillance is a game-changer and a big part of the shale field of the future in the US.”

Shell has interest in 500,000 acres (260,000 net acres) in the Delaware Basin and more than 1,300 operated and non-operated wells. We are accelerating our development activities in the Basin, bringing additional wells on line and investing in gathering lines and central processing facilities (CPF).

Significant Achievement

Shell has relied on digital technologies throughout the business for many years, from subsea robotics in the 1970s, to helping in the development of RAM (random access memory) in the 1980s, to process seismic data in more recent times.

In less than 10 years, drones have gone from a niche inspection solution to a tool that is used daily across Shell’s global operations. Drones can be fitted with various sensors, including visible and infrared cameras, to extend human reach, enabling inspections to be performed faster, safer and cheaper than traditional techniques.

Currently, US regulations require UAS to stay within range of the pilot’s vision. While understandable from an aviation safety perspective, this limits the geographic range and operational scope of drone-mounted sensors in the US.

The FAA exemption provides additional safety assurances in the form of radar assistance while allowing proven drone applications to be deployed to a much wider range of assets, opening options for greater optimization and efficiency.

“Industrial operations in the Permian Basin face unique dangers and risks that can be reduced by introducing new technologies. Together with Shell, we successfully built a case for a BVLOS drone inspection in the Permian Basin using radar, that will provide significant improvements in the efficiency and safety of operations. The Permian, in many ways, is a perfect first use case and environment for radar-monitored BVLOS that we can expand upon into other areas,” said Brad Tomer, Interim CEO for Avitas Systems.

Benefits of Drones

Currently, Shell operators in the Permian Basin travel from site to site across hundreds of miles to clean, lubricate, adjust, inspect and repair wellsite infrastructure. Extensive road travel takes valuable manhours away from core maintenance and operational tasks.

In July 2018, Shell launched a project with Avitas Systems to test drone-based remote inspection of assets in the Permian Basin to ensure employees and contractors are only sent to locations in which maintenance work is needed. This change could greatly increase the efficiency of Shell’s workforce while removing vehicles from the roads, reducing road safety-related risks and roadway impacts from cumulative use.

Multi-mission surveillance drones, when combined with advanced analytics, will enable automated detection of oil and gas leaks, corrosion, abnormal heat signatures, presence of wildlife, road conditions and more. Shell operations teams will also have better insight into the overall condition of its assets, and how the conditions change over time. This will enable the team to identify issues sooner and fix them faster.

Shell’s Digitalization Journey

“Technology, integration and scale are the three main differentiators for Shell in shales. We have embarked on a digitalization journey to keep up with our expanding operations in places like the Permian Basin and drones are an integral part of that journey,” said Watkins.

Shell’s technology deployment team is collaborating with strategic partners to test different solutions and develop a shales field of the future, dubbed iShale®. iShale® leverages recent advances in automation, digitalization and advanced analytics to enhance well productivity. We are investigating intelligent pads, smart field operations, and the utilization of standardized modular facilities.

These innovations not only have the potential to increase production, decrease costs and mitigate safety risks, but also deliver environmental benefits through greater energy efficiency and reduced operational footprint. “We are already rolling out new technology solutions across our shales sites in North America and Argentina,” said Watkins.

1 Royal Dutch Shell plc and its various subsidiaries and affiliates (the “Shell Group”) are separate legal entities. In this announcement the expression “Shell” is sometimes used for convenience where references are made to those entities individually or collectively. Likewise, the words “we”, “us” and “our” are also used to refer to companies in the Shell Group in general or those who work for them, and these references do not reflect the operational or corporate structure of, or the relationship between, entities in the Shell Group. Nothing in this announcement is intended to suggest that any entity in the Shell Group, including Royal Dutch Shell plc, directs or is responsible for the day-to-day operations of any other entity in the Shell Group.

2 Royal Dutch Shell plc and its various subsidiaries and affiliates (the “Shell Group”) are separate legal entities. In this announcement the expression “Shell” is sometimes used for convenience where references are made to those entities individually or collectively. Likewise, the words “we”, “us” and “our” are also used to refer to companies in the Shell Group in general or those who work for them, and these references do not reflect the operational or corporate structure of, or the relationship between, entities in the Shell Group. Nothing in this announcement is intended to suggest that any entity in the Shell Group, including Royal Dutch Shell plc, directs or is responsible for the day-to-day operations of any other entity in the Shell Group.

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