The idea of exploring for hard-to-reach oil resources by air is gaining ground. With the METIS® project, Total is developing a highly promising disruptive system. In late 2017, a pilot was conducted in an unusually daunting environment: Papua New Guinea. A look back at a pioneering initiative that severely tested both people and equipment.
Snapshot of a world that still needs oil
Even though the inevitable energy transition to more renewables and higher energy efficiency will automatically scale back the use of oil and gas, the growth curve for oil demand is still ascending. And will continue to do so at least until mid-century.
What's more, there are still reserves that haven't been developed. But such yet-to-find resources are often hidden in remote environments, including extremely cold regions, the deep and ultra-deep offshore, and places whose harsh climates are tough on people and equipment. Reserves can also be located in foothills, hilly terrain labeled "geological chaos" by geologists because its fold-and-thrust configuration makes all logistics complicated and thus expensive using today's technologies.
The final factor is a critical society with burgeoning energy needs that nonetheless demands ever more protection for the environment and people. This may not be as much of a paradox as it seems. But from now on, the oil industry's license to operate depends on taking these seemingly conflicting requirements into account.
A look, in pictures, at how METIS® will radically change the face of oil exploration by scouting resources from the sky.
Coming up with a disruptive project to meet the challenge
Such is the backdrop for the creation of the METIS® project in 2014, by Total Exploration & Production's R&D teams. The idea was to capture high-quality images of foothills by releasing DARTs from drones. These wireless dart-shaped projectiles, equipped with geophysical sensors, communicate with relay antennas to transmit and process seismic data that is being measured in real time. It makes data acquisition fast and more affordable.
It was the first time anyone had ever come up with this disruptive idea for exploration. Florent Bertini, earth imaging R&D program manager at Total, describes it as "somewhat counterintuitive." "METIS® is trying to position the company in the onshore, during a period of low oil prices, to produce resources cheaply and efficiently," he said. It took time for the idea to make headway, technologically and culturally. Especially given that specifications call for the smallest achievable environmental impact, using as many biodegradable materials as possible — even for the batteries.
A team up for the challenge came together. Total worked with partners such as Wireless Seismic and Geokinetics to acquire and process seismic data wirelessly and RPS for drones. It wanted to prove that the concept was viable under real-world conditions, fast. A small-scale pilot was scheduled in Papua New Guinea for end-2017. "The worst imaginable environment for acquiring seismic data," according to Bill Pramik, METIS® project manager at Wireless Seismic. But "this is the environment in which the METIS® concept showed that it really is an economical solution for highly complex acquisition." The site's climate and geological conditions are, in fact, daunting. The humidity, heat, rain, snakes and leeches put people and equipment to the test, in a place where nature has ceded none of its power.
Bruno Pagliccia, METIS® seismic operations & pilot leader at Total, responsible for conducting the pilot, was up to the challenge, which involved "assembling the various building blocks of the project — DARTs, drone, communication systems — which were developed separately but are required to work together."
The test was successful. For six weeks, including three weeks of preparation, up to 55 people put in 25,000 hours of work at the Antelope-3 site. Around 60 DARTs were launched from a drone that took precise aim at so-called sky holes, the openings in the canopy often found between tree crowns. With a 90 percent success rate for ground penetration, "It works!," says Bruno Pagliccia. "The project is realistic and can be implemented, even though there's still a lot of work to do to deploy it across wider areas." That's because the trial brought unexpected problems to light. "Flying in lithium batteries by plane turned out to be more complicated than we expected," remembers the team leader. Aerial restrictions are severe. Plus, local nature wasn't kind to the electronic equipment. The DARTs sometimes sank too deeply into damp soil softened by the humid air, making communication with the antennas difficult.
Safety, a core Total value, was central to the pilot's execution. "We set up a 20-hectare safety clearance zone, sealing off the perimeter by means of patrols that made sure no one accidentally wandered into the area. In addition, our drones had infrared thermal imaging and optical cameras, to drop the DARTs safely." There were no incidents during the pilot.
• For more on the subject: A bird's-eye view of oil exploration
10 years of research
The next step is a new trial in the fall of 2019 that will mark a step change, with an increase in the number of DARTs released to around 4,000 and the use for the first time of an autonomous fleet of at least five drones. Pierre-Olivier Lys, METIS® project manager at Total, comments that: "With a few thousand DARTs, we'll get a real 3D seismic image. It will be small, but we'll make sure it provides real value added to Total, by positioning it around a well for example." The pilot location has not yet been chosen, but to demonstrate the system's flexibility and adaptability to other environments, it will not be Papua New Guinea.
Then, in 2021, an industrial-scale pilot will deploy roughly 50,000 DARTs, several dozen drones and an airship across a huge, 100-square-kilometer area of rugged terrain. "If the tests are conclusive, we'll move from R&D to commercial scale-up," predicts Pierre-Olivier Lys. "And we'll see the METIS® technology in use in the field around 2023, after less than 10 years of research and development."
The project will be deployable in difficult terrain, of course. But also elsewhere, such as deserts, mountainous areas and hard ground, "though we'll have to adapt the current DARTs' design in some cases," says the project manager.
Other applications are also possible. Some or all of the METIS® system could be used to monitor volcano activity, inspect pipelines or even search for people buried under rubble or avalanches. "METIS®'s technological building blocks — drones, DARTs, airships — will be usable together or alone, so that we can leverage the system's versatility and broaden the scope of potential applications for our R&D results," states Pierre-Olivier Lys.
When tested in the field, METIS® proved to be more than just wishful thinking and demonstrated "cutting-edge Total R&D." There's still lots to do to improve the technologies, especially to make the DARTs' environmental impact close to nil. But it holds great promise: reaching previously inaccessible reserves while reducing environmental impact and involving local populations. "We're going to make it possible to explore currently inaccessible areas," says Pierre-Olivier Lys in conclusion.
1 Multiphysics Exploration Technology Integrated System
2 Downfall Air Receiver Technology