UASatCom - Geophysical and Pipeline Monitoring Services

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The UASatCom project targets airborne geophysical survey and oil and gas pipeline monitoring services based on an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). Equipped with suitable sensors and making use of satellite communication and navigation, operation of the UAS beyond line-of-sight is enabled.

As of today, geophysical survey missions are typically done using smaller manned airplanes equipped with various kinds of sensors, whereas pipeline monitoring is often done using helicopters. In both cases, users have a need for safer and cheaper operations. Also, by being able to fly lower, survey data accuracy can be improved.

After studying the user needs, the project has investigated the regulatory, financial, and technical aspects of using UAS for survey and monitoring services. The project has identified business opportunities and has prepared for a proposed 18 month Demonstration Project.  

Objectives of the service

The key tasks of the project were to:

  • identify the User Needs in the oil, gas and mineral exploration areas, with a focus on the airborne survey element
  • identify the User Needs in the oil and gas production area, with a focus on the monitoring of oil and gas pipelines
  • understand the current State-of-the-Art in these areas
  • investigate the regulatory, financial and technical aspects pertaining to the feasibility of using small unmanned aircraft, with a satellite communication data relay link, flying Beyond-Line-Of-Sight using precision satellite navigation, to perform geophysical surveys and oil and gas pipeline and installation monitoring.
  • focus on the work necessary to introduce Unmanned Aircraft in:
    • oil, gas and mineral geophysical survey work
    • routine, daily, monitoring oil and gas pipelines
    • routine monitoring of oil, gas and mineral installations
  • consider in detail the important non-business aspects of this proposed service, including regulatory issues, the importance of public opinion and the possible advantages of an ecologically superior solution
  • identify the business opportunities and risks for all participants in the Service Chain

Figure 1: Study setup


Users and their needs

The End Users in this feasibility Study are the large oil, gas and mineral exploration and production ("E&P") companies such as:

Oil and gas E&P

  • BP
  • Exxon
  • Royal Dutch Shell
  • Statoil

Mining E&P

  • Anglo American
  • BHP Billiton
  • Rio Tinto Zinc
  • Xstrata

Royal Dutch Shell is involved in this Feasibility Study as a User.

Shell GS-P&T oversee the oil and gas exploration and production activities for Royal Dutch Shell. The corporate name has changed to Shell Global Solutions - Projects and Technology Upstream  or Shell GS-P&T for short.

Shell GS-P&T has a solid foundation, built by the best project and technical teams in the oil and gas industry. Shell GS-P&T provides technical services, technology capability and major project delivery in both Upstream and Downstream activities. Shell GS-P&T harnesses leading capabilities and provides solutions for technological challenges associated with assets and projects. Its activities include subsurface expertise and deployment, under which Geomatics falls. The Geomatics Department focuses on remote sensing, cartography, GIS services and geodetic integrity.

Oil and gas and mineral exploration and production companies such as Shell, BP, Statoil, Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Xstrata view exploration as the identification of places on Earth to explore from consideration of present resource locations, a history of the Earth and any other insight they might have. They will make use of any available geophysical information related to their area of interest, together with the latest satellite imagery. Since the drilling for natural resources is an expensive activity, the exploration companies will want as much overlapping information as possible to reduce the possibility of drilling a dry well, for example. Consequently, the exploration companies will often perform a combination of airborne survey and surface based seismic survey.

Oil and gas production includes the development and subsequent monitoring of the pipelines and related installations, such as oil rigs at sea, refineries, pumping stations and terminals. Oil and gas pipelines that require monitoring extend for hundreds of kilometres, often in difficult terrains, such as the swampy marshlands in the Niger basin, the hot deserts in North Africa and the frozen areas in North Russia and the Arctic region.

Service/ system concept

Airborne survey work and the airborne monitoring of pipelines is performed by manned aircraft and manned helicopters. One reads routinely of unmanned aircraft being used on military operations. Why not use them in oil, gas and mineral exploration and production work? Unmanned aircraft:

  • can routinely fly closer to the ground at night to get better quality geomagnetic data
  • can follow a very precise flight path, day after day, and night after night, at low level, using computer control and precision satellite based navigation
  • have lower operational costs, since a pilot is not carried in the aircraft
  • are more environmentally friendly, since they use less fuel per km travelled

Space Added Value

Using broadband satellite communication for command and control of the UA together with precision satellite navigation, UA's can be operated over a large area without the need for a terrestrial communication network with coverage in the whole operational area, or ground based navigation systems. This increases the operational flexibility considerably and has the potential to reduce the cost of the operations.

For monitoring services, the ability to access the payload data in near real-time can increase awareness and reduce response time considerably.

Together UAV's and space assets enable a wide range of services.


Product Benefits

  • Ability to offer a year - on - year service price reduction provided there is an ongoing R&D effort to develop the identified cost reducing innovations, and provided these innovations can be introduced
  • higher resolution (higher relative values for high spatial frequency 2D Fourier coefficients) and higher quality geomagnetic survey data by using computer controlled low level ("tight drape") flight coupled with precision navigation based on Global Navigation Satellite System
  • introduce an ability to operate in regions where it might be irresponsible to use pilots, such as over the Arctic ocean, or monitoring pipelines in areas of civil unrest
  • contribution to reinforcing a positive public and commercial image of the End User being a dynamic organisation at the forefront of new technology that has real benefits
  • more environmentally sound / friendly / responsible technology

Product Features

Figure 2: Study diagram


The intended solution is based on the use of broadband satellite based data relay and precision satellite based navigation to enable a small unmanned aircraft to execute routine, precision, flight Beyond-Line-Of-Sight, while performing geophysical surveys and oil and gas pipeline and related installation monitoring.

The unmanned aircraft Pilot-in-Command and the Co-Pilot will be located at the Ground Control Station, and will have access to the unmanned aircraft via the broadband satellite data relay service.

In the case of oil, gas and mineral geophysical survey work, the unmanned aircraft will relay telemetry data to the GCS, and the uplink, via the satellite, will consist of Flight Commands, such as, Return to Home in the event of a flight termination.

In the case of routine monitoring oil and gas pipelines, the downlink will include both telemetry and selected images of areas of interest.

Key Issues

There are issues related to the use of Unmanned Aircraft which are central to this Feasibility Study:

  • investigation of a broadband Ethernet satellite link on a small unmanned aircraft
  • introduction of precision GPS (Differential GPS, EGNOS) navigation to enable the unmanned aircraft to repeatedly cover the same flight path to perform differential imaging and measurements
  • regulatory issues concerning the flight of an unmanned aircraft beyond line of sight
  • suitable business models, taking into account insurance costs and operational risks

Current Status

Progress Meeting 1 at Inmarsat in London

  • Work Package 1 on morning of Thursday 11 August 2011
  • Work Package 2 on morning of Friday 12 August 2011

Work Shop 1 at Inmarsat in London

  • Consolidated User Needs on afternoon of 11 August 2011

Work Shop 2 at Shell in Rijswijk in the Netherlands

  • Consolidated User Needs on Thursday 17 November 2011

Mid-Term Review Meeting at ESA ESTEC

  • Work Package 3 on Friday 18 November 2011

Work Shop 3 at Sander Geophysics Limited in Ottawa

  • Overview and discussion of Economic and Non Economic Viability on Thursday 9 February 2012

Progress Meeting 2 in Ottawa

  • Work Packages 3, 4 and 5 on Friday 10 February 2012

Significant contributions to this Feasibility Study has come from the involved users. This information has been used to define the User Requirements, a system to satisfy those requirements, and to identify the Proof of Concept tests.
One key outcome of the Proof of Concept tests is that interference between the low gain satellite communications antennas and other nearby antennas and sensors is a serious problem in small unmanned aircraft. The problem has been solved using both internal funding and funding from other sources.

Final Project Meeting

In addition to simply identifying issues arising out of the Proof of Concept tests, we also solved the issues using internal funding and funds from other sources. This leaves us with confidence that we can move on to the proposed Demonstration Project with all the major issues having been resolved during the Feasibility Study.

Figure 3: The Cobham SB-200 satellite communications unit fitted to a small unmanned aircraft used in the Proof of Concept tests part of the Feasibility Study. Figure 4: Examples of sources of electromagnetic interference.

The UASatCom Feasibility Study has concluded that:

  • The use of unmanned aircraft in both Geophysical Survey and Pipeline Monitoring services is technically feasible.
  • The regulatory constraints that existed a few years ago are being resolved, opening up the opportunity to use unmanned aircarft in the post-2015 timeframe.
  • The commercial case for the introduction of this disruptive technology based on the use of unmanned aircraft in GS and PM services is compelling. 
    The next step is to gather the evidence, already requested by potential service users, to justify the findings of this Feasibility Study.

We have submitted an Outline Proposal for a follow-on, User driven, SURMON Demonstration project as the next crucial step towards the roll out of pilot GS and PM services.

A copy of the non-confidential UASatCom Feasibility Study Final Report is now available.

Status Date

Updated: 04 October 2012 - Created: 15 February 2014