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Following a recent announcement, the Energy Forward team talks to Kevin McMahon about deploying drones for methane detection in the Permian Basin.
At Shell, we place a high priority on combating methane emissions linked to oil and gas production. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When it is released into the atmosphere, it has a much higher immediate global warming impact than carbon dioxide. Before methane leaks can be stopped, the sources must first be identified. To do this, we use a broad range of methods and technologies. These include implementing Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programs and using the best available technologies to reduce methane emissions at our sites. Our target is to maintain methane emissions intensity below 0.2% by 2025. This target covers all Upstream and Integrated Gas oil and gas assets for which Shell is the operator.
Since 2018, the Shell-Avitas team has tested drones equipped with methane detection cameras and sensors in the Permian Basin. We have conducted more than 500 test flights, during which we have assessed the capability and reliability of drones and drone-mounted sensors, perfected inspection protocols, calibrated artificial intelligence (AI) enabled software platforms and developed data collection profiles. We have also focused on safety, which is a critical element when evaluating any new system. I must say, this has been no small task. Based on the insights provided, we know that drone-based cameras and sensors combined with Avitas’ advanced computer vision and machine learning analytics provide a valuable source of insight.
We already have a robust Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) program in place, which includes conducting surveys, using primarily optical gas imaging (OGI) - an infrared camera optically filtered for methane - at major installations and sites with surface equipment in the Permian Basin. We also monitor leaks as part of our day-to-day on-site inspections and maintenance activities. We work on multiple fronts to find solutions that enhance and supplement our existing LDAR program and are especially excited about developing drones-based detection capabilities. Drones and related advanced analytics have the potential to enable more efficient detection and reporting of leaks in the Permian. In addition to the detection of leaks, Avitas’ back end visual analytics enable additional operational insights we would not otherwise pick up.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible with drones and the potential benefits of flying them over our installations and sites in the Permian Basin. While we are currently focused on conducting methane detection missions, multi-mission surveillance drones, when combined with advanced analytics, could enable automated detection of oil and gas leaks, corrosion, abnormal heat signatures, presence of wildlife, road conditions and more. Drones could also provide better insight into the overall condition of assets, enabling our maintenance teams to identify issues sooner and fix them faster. But more work is needed to harness the full spectrum of capabilities and to operationalize these capabilities.
We hope the use of drones could improve the efficiency of Shell’s workforce while removing vehicles from the roads, reducing road safety exposure and roadway impacts from cumulative use. Our pilot program has focused on testing the technology and software platforms in a small number of installations and sites in the Permian so it’s difficult to make any overarching conclusions on the potential gains. That said, initial indications are positive. We will have a better understanding of the gains once drones-based leak detection capabilities are integrated into our existing Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) program and operated for a sustained period of time across our Permian footprint.
We are excited to pave the way for a new era in proactive methane detection in the Permian Basin marked by better, faster and more efficient leak detection, contributing to reduced emissions. And we feel that drone-based leak detection capabilities are an integral part of this improvement journey. Based on the data collected during the test flights, drone-based cameras and sensors combined with AI can provide a useful supplemental source of insight, complementing our existing Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) program in the Basin.
 The companies in which Royal Dutch Shell plc directly and indirectly owns investments are separate legal entities. In this publication “Shell”, is used for convenience where no useful purpose is served by identifying the particular company or companies.