Testing Drone Technology to Detect and Quantify Emissions

Managing methane, which is the primary component of natural gas, and reducing even small releases of methane from operating components, is a key aspect of our Global Well Management Principles. Quickly detecting and repairing leaks is also an important element as we work to achieve our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity reduction target. Drones are the latest technology being piloted in our arsenal of leak detection and repair (LDAR) tools, providing real-time identification of leaks and accurate quantification of leaks and process equipment emissions. Drone-based methane monitoring programs have the potential to help our entire industry reduce emissions by providing a better understanding of where leaks occur and at what magnitude. This technology advancement quantifies emissions and allows us to benchmark sites and establish a baseline for reduction efforts.

“By testing this technology, we are seeing the possibility of both detecting and quantifying methane emission rates coming from individual oil and gas production sites. Understanding the quantity of methane, and not just the presence of the gas, could help direct more efficient and effective maintenance activities in the future,” said David Camille, Manager, Lower 48 HSE Innovation & Technology.

The project is a collaboration with Scientific Aviation, a company well-known for its expertise in using manned aircraft to detect and quantify methane emissions. The effort began after ConocoPhillips expressed interest in improving the precision of emissions quantification rates coming from sites by scaling Scientific Aviation’s manned aircraft technology to drones. Airplanes fly loops around the area being assessed but are limited to collecting data from a broad area. In dense fields with multiple potential emission sources, data from manned aircraft does not provide the granularity needed to easily identify emission sources or quantify emissions from an individual site. Airplanes can identify a leak source within a range of about 500 meters.

Field Testing the Technology

Texas’s Eagle Ford was the first location to test the drone system technology at an operating well site. The area was selected because it is relatively flat and has steady wind conditions. Drones began collecting data in early 2019 and, for comparison purposes, tests were also conducted using a manned aircraft and optical gas imaging camera.

The drone system is outfitted with on-board gas analyzers and meteorological sensors, which provide data to the operator while being flown around well sites. By executing a flight pattern that creates a virtual plane downwind of equipment, the technology identifies the total amount of methane being emitted from site. The system does this by detecting methane passing through the virtual plane and capturing wind vector in real time. These variables are then fed into sophisticated algorithms to quantify methane volumes.

Flying the drone closer to the equipment allows for isolation and confirmation of the source. Since the drones are much smaller than aircraft, they fly at much lower altitudes and are able to more precisely pinpoint the location of leaks by using the data collected paired with visual information from the on-board video feed.

drone flying on site“The ability to fly nearer to sources, combined with the wind and methane measurement, allows us to locate the source of a leak to within a few meters,” Camille noted. Additionally, tests indicate that the drone system has the potential to detect smaller leaks that are difficult to detect by planes or on-the-ground methods.

Once leaks are identified, they are fixed as soon as feasible, with many leaks repaired either the same day or within a few days of being detected. If additional time is required, we follow standard maintenance processes by adding the required repairs to our maintenance tracking system. After repairs are completed, inspections ensure that the repairs are successful. We implement engineered solutions and/or operational changes if we identify developing trends of systemic hardware problems.

Current Regulations

The current U.S. regulatory framework allows operators to use optical gas imaging cameras or point source air sampling to detect leaks from oil and gas operations. Quantification normally relies on equipment counts and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) equipment factors that estimate emissions for each piece of equipment. Early measurement results by the drone system suggest that facilities with gas-driven pneumatic controllers emit much less than what is currently reported under the EPA factors.

Use of unmanned aerial systems for emission detection generally has been limited due to regulatory frameworks, quantification techniques and big data capabilities. We see potential for change in several of these areas and are proactively evaluating and further developing various technologies. Data obtained by the drone system allows for benchmarking and continuous improvement, while supporting future regulatory conversations related to leak detection, repair and quantification.

Next Steps1

We are continuing to test the drone technology in other areas of our operations to evaluate the consistency of findings across various operating conditions.

“Next, we will work closely with our operations teams to identify and document best practices for emissions detection via drone in parallel with developing and testing a number of technical enhancements to improve the performance of the technology,” said Amanda Morris, ConocoPhillips director of Technology Commercialization. “Since methane emissions are a global issue, using and testing this technology at more of our assets has the potential to help reduce methane emissions at a faster and larger scale.”

1 Due to constraints on capital in 2020 and beyond, any future plans for testing technology may be curtailed.