New Drone Technology Developed for METIS Project

New Drone Technology Developed for METIS Project
Image courtesy of Total.

Gathering onshore seismic data in challenging environments will always present a unique set of challenges.

In 2015, we were contracted by Total to support their Multiphysics Exploration Technology Integrated System or ‘METIS’ collaborative project. The project is focused on addressing the issues when acquiring high quality data in difficult terrains with minimal impact.

An innovative solution was required to conduct the operations causing as little impact and disruption as possible to terrestrial eco systems. Traditionally, these surveys would be carried carried out by large teams of personnel on the ground which would potentially involve serious risk of ecological, HSE and cultural damage.

"METIS is revolutionary because it addresses an entire acquisition system holistically instead of one little piece at a time, in order to optimise HSE, quality, cost and turn-around time" says Pierrre-Olivier Lys, Total’s Innovative Acquisition Manager.

The technology was the result of team collaboration between several expert businesses including leading data technology and components experts Wireless Seismic, Geokinetics, RPS, SAFT and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland who brought unique technological tools to capture the data. This led to the crucial development of the DART (Downfall Air Receiver Technology), a lightweight wireless sensor hitting its target via a biodegradable dart. The sensor and battery itself are on course to being far and away the most carbon neutral of their kind as the prototype continues to be honed to realise the best possible model for minimal disruption and impact.

DARTS are loaded onto drones programmed to fly above the rainforest canopy to predetermined locations and deployed. A sophisticated arrangement of radiotelemetry allows the DART to be guided to the correct target position. Further development on the technology focuses on improving the embedding position of the DARTS when they land – upright DARTS gathered the data more reliably in the pilot study.

RPS project managed the drone build in collaboration with ISS Aerospace who designed and manufactured the platforms based on Total specifications. RPS Technical Director, Dr. Karen Dalton is the RPS METIS Project Manager working alongside Mike Powell, RPS Energy UAS Operations Manager and pilot. RPS worked alongside Total and their partners during the operational phases of the Pilot leading to the full dropping pilot in PNG at the end of 2017.

The concept of a DART dropping drone was first tested in Texas Q4 2016. During this operation Mike Powell flew 155 flight sorties, which were successfully completed in a hot and humid environment, through various vegetation types and densities, culminating in dropping DARTs through tree canopy from 65m above the ground, which tested the UAV capability, the drop mechanism, dart performance and operational frequencies.

The drone and DART dropping system was upgraded and redesigned following the lessons learned in Texas, and the next live testing took place in the South of France in 2017. This testing was to demonstrate the system to Total and to satisfy DGAC Regulations. Mike piloted the drone over three days, testing the endurance and performance of the drone system but no DARTs were dropped at this stage. The DART dropping system was subsequently tested in the UK in October & November 2017 prior to departure for Papua New Guinea.

All the testing was working towards the live test of the DART system in Papua New Guinea, where the full acquisition system was being trialled, ie. the source and receivers. The RPS team travelled to PNG at the end of November 2017 and spent two weeks on a seismic fly camp in a remote jungle environment to conduct the drone DART system tests. Karen travelled to PNG with a pilot and technician and following a rapid acclimatisation to the challenging jungle working conditions, established operational systems and protocols. There were a large number of interesting ‘elements’ to overcome on the project. These included the remote environment which meant the shipping of large and sensitive equipment such as lithium lipo batteries across the world and then all personnel and equipment had to be transported to camp by helicopter. The working conditions involved the high temperatures and humidity, and local wildlife, both big and small!

This initial pilot study in PNG was a tremendous success. Approximately 60 DARTS were deployed using a single drone and communicated live seismic data effectively.

The second pilot phase is scheduled for next year, deploying 4000 sensors on a 50m grid using a swarm of drones. The first ‘real’ survey use is intended by 2021. Human impact is to be further minimised by use of an airship created by aeronautical company Flying Whales to allow for transport of equipment and removal of non-biodegradable material afterwards. Up to 4000 receivers could be deployed each day in areas of thick growth, and up to 40,000 in areas of open environment.

"It’s been a privilege and a huge challenge to be involved in such a new, successful collaborative project" says Karen "We have developed a whole new skill set of learning which we will continue to innovate and build and develop our knowledge around the use of drones and remote robotic technologies in our sector and beyond."

Read the GeoExPro article on the project here