Oil and gas exploration has always moved at the speed of the equipment—glacially. Productive job sites quickly get clogged with fleets of massive trucks, cranes, and rotary diggers, forcing site planners to observe the area by helicopter just to direct traffic.
For decades, this has been the only way to do business. And it’s pricey. Drilling machinery burns thousands of dollars per day in operation, and nearly as much when it sits idle. When conditions change—weather, markets, breakdowns—teams suffer a chain reaction of runaway costs only the biggest conglomerates can afford.
With such massive overhead acting as a barrier to entry, oil and gas companies have been slow to innovate around worker safety and environmental impact. But aerial drones threaten to drastically change the pace. Are American oil companies ready?
Self-piloting drones are leading a small but fundamental change in the industry. In oil and gas, equipment doesn’t move without data—where to drill, how deep to go, and so on. With the traffic bottleneck removed, suddenly equipment can move more nimbly and exploration startups can get in the drilling game for a fraction of the traditional entry cost.
The impact of self-piloted drones comes in the form of speed and savings. By photographing job sites 24 hours a day in high definition, oil and gas principals get an up-to-the-minute view of how their resources are deployed—even when conditions are too dangerous for manned aviation. Instead of planning fleet movements weeks in advance, decisions about fleet movement are possible on the fly, cutting costs and making management more responsive. Though oil and gas are becoming increasingly hard extract in the U.S., dynamic job site monitoring is one of a handful of technologies that could keep domestic exploration competitive with overseas oil.
The self-piloting drone works like consumer drones, but with one key feature: it requires zero maintenance. After surveying several square miles of terrain, the three-foot-wide quadcopter can pilot itself back to a docking station where it self-installs a fresh battery pack. Other industrial drones can even make 3D maps of dangerous sites, forgoing the need for human workers to analyze the data once the drone is done surveying.
When combined with other technologies like additive manufacturing and advanced seismography, drones-as-a-platform can become a fulcrum point for much larger industry disruptions. Should a drone report broken machinery, its stereoscopic vision could dispatch an order for a 3D-printed replacement part right on site.
Fitted with advanced seismic sensors, drones could even replace exploration teams entirely, recording subterranean data at high sensitivity from hundreds of feet in the air. These capabilities entail a big shake-up for one of the world’s most entrenched industries—with less strip mining, fewer accidents, and cheaper fuel for the rest of us.