Shell Expands Drone Program For Methane Detection

Shell enlists Avitas technology, a Baker Hughes company, to expand a drone-based program to enhance existing methane leak detection and repair programs in a very productive Permian Basin, a U.S. shale basin.

This decision follows a successful two-year pilot program, since 2018 in which the international oil and gas company, Shell, plans to test drone technology and software platforms. As part of its existing methane leak detection and repair (LDAR) program, this will be done by utilizing a small fleet of drones to fly over more than 500 oil and gas sites in the Permian Basin of West Texas in search for leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas.

Avitas had used two drones during the pilot phase of the program and will continue to fly two drones in the current program. Although the Shell-Avitas team had used two types of drones, AeroVironment VAPOR 55 all-electric helicopter and the DJI M600 Pro, in the pilot phase of the program, However, the operational phase, the team has opted to fly the M600 exclusively.

According to a spokesperson from Avitas stated the following:

“During the pilot phase, 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. Based on the pilot program, we know that drone-based cameras and sensors combined with Avitas’ advanced computer vision and machine-learning analytics provide a valuable source of insight.”*

The drones were equipped with an optical gas imaging (OGI) camera and a laser-based detection system which will conduct aerial inspections of what may have the potential to be sources of methane emissions, such as well pads, central processing facilities, saltwater disposal plants and compressor stations. 

The main component of natural gas is Methane — an odorless and colorless gas — which is 28 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over a 100-year span. The Permian Basin drone program will hopefully assist Shell in achieving its corporate goal of limiting its methane emissions intensity below 0.2% by 2025.

Jason Roe, Avitas CEO, points out that what is most crucial to the success of the program is the integration of the physical asset — the drone — with the cyber component of analyzing the data collected by the drones.

Roe stated in an interview:

“We have an advanced cyber/physical integration team that will take the drone platform and couple it with the sensor technologies. The cyber physical integration of getting the sensors on board, knowing the right flight paths, the automation of the flight paths and everything else takes quite a bit of planning.”

Roe further stated that it is critical that there is a smooth interface among all the components of the system, “making sure that the right metadata goes into the right places for proper ingestions into our web-based platform. . . . In addition, we can use computer-vision algorithms to drive additional findings on the sites, beyond just the methane detection itself.”*

Although Avitas has licensed drone pilots on its staff and therefore typically uses its own team in the field, sometimes the company subcontracts the work to other drone pilots in the region.


By enlisting Avitas technology to expand a drone-based program to enhance existing methane leak detection and repair programs, Shell not only has its sights on a very productive Permian Basin, a U.S. shale basin, but it hopes to expand its drone program in the region and envisions the potential to extend the program to major oil companies in the U.S.

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