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Alaska Journal of Commerce: Shell may enlist pilotless planes to aid in exploration

Sunday, March 4, 2007
By Rob Stapleton 
 
Unmanned aerial vehicles will aid oil exploration near the North Slope in the Beaufort Sea, according to officials from Shell Oil Co.

“Drones are being investigated as an alternative to manned aerial flights for marine mammal monitoring in order to reduce the safety risk to humans associated with flights over remote stretches of Arctic Ocean,” according to a written statement by Terzah Poe, a Shell Oil spokeswoman. “The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, would be used to monitor and track marine mammals in the areas where we are operating.”

According to vendors on the North Slope, Shell used the UAVs for aerial whale studies last fall. Shell would not confirm or deny the use of UAVs last year.

“The drone would provide information to our crews about whether or not animals were near our operations, so then we can make the determination whether or not we need to take any action to modify or shut down operations until the animals have moved on,” Poe said.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, made up of whaling captains from the North Slope, produced a conflict avoidance publication in 2005 that outlines its wishes for procedures for offshore exploration should ships encounter migrating bowhead whales.

AEWC officials could not be reached for comment about the publication or whether oil companies had agreed to the AEWC’s concerns about whale contacts.

At a recent breakfast meeting hosted by the Resource Development Council in Anchorage, Evergreen Unmanned Systems brought along a Insitu-built UAV to display, but gave little detail about the costs for the use of its unmanned aircraft.

“The cost of these is similar to manned flights,” said Evergreen’s Robert Lane Jr. “The overall cost is based on the client’s needs.”

Insitu is an Oregon-based company that manufactures UAVs. Evergreen Unmanned Systems is a separate company that uses Insitu aircraft.

Evergreen officials would not reveal whether or not the company had flown its UAV on any missions in Alaska.

“We cannot comment about who or if we had any clients here in Alaska, at the request of our client,” said Chris Rushing with Evergreen Unmanned Services.

Evergreen’s presentation, although light on details, did reveal that it would take 90-120 days advance notice to deploy a team to make flights with the UAVs.

UAVs come in all shapes and sizes, and can be helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, both in miniature and full-sized vehicles.

The Insitu UAV used by Evergreen and displayed at the RDC breakfast was a dull gray aircraft propelled by a pusher-style propeller run by a single-cylinder, two-cycle engine. The aircraft had a 10-foot wingspan, complete with winglets. This UAV is capable of that flights last up to 20 hours at altitudes of 19,000 feet. The plane has a cruise speed of 45 knots, or 52 mph.

The Insitu Eagle is capable of taking photographs using digital cameras that shoot infrared and conventional images, as well as video that can be transmitted while in flight using a satellite network.

Insitu did not return requests from the Journal for information about the cost of its aircraft.

Evergreen has signed a letter of intent with Bell Helicopter for three Eagle Eye tilt-rotor UAVs, which the company would receive after Bell fills its contracts with other customers, according to Aviation International News.

“These aren’t the only UAVs Evergreen is considering. We’re researching many different UAV airframes,” said David Rath, Evergreen Helicopters president. “We see a huge market for UAVs all over the world, for customers needing surveillance. Evergreen’s year-old UAV division is talking to equipment manufacturers and customers, and doing some real-world testing as well.”

Unmanned flights from Barrow for scientific research were reported in 2005, according to the Arctic Sounder newspaper. The U.S. Forest Service also used UAVs for flights over fires in Interior Alaska in 2005 and 2006.

Rob Stapleton can be reached at [email protected].

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