Geologists Gain an Eye in the Sky

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Jim Ellis gets excited when he talks about pictures on your desktop computer.

No, not those kinds of pictures.

Ellis is inspired by the wealth of surface images, map displays and other visual data now available to petroleum geologists. New technology and falling prices are bringing big-league tools to small computer screens.

"People now can get things on CD that truly level the playing field," he said, "so it's not just the big companies that can get access to this kind of information."

New sources of digital aerial photographs, satellite imagery and the introduction of versatile imaging software for personal computers will make desktop data display even more available and affordable.

And the big leap forward for integrated visual displays could be Internet accessibility.

Ellis called that emerging technology "almost ready for prime time" and predicted it will be widely used in the future.

"Data in the oil patch has become more of a commodity," he said. "There are companies out there that are acquiring the data and cleaning it up, and making it all available to anyone with a PC."

Those Eyes in the Skies

In talking about desktop imagery, Ellis can draw on his expertise in remote sensing capturing data by satellite or aircraft to image the land surface.

He supervised Chevron's remote sensing group for overseas operations from 1985 to 1997, and today is manager of remote sensing for The Map Factory and its new professional services subsidiary, HJW. These companies are based out of the Oakland, Calif., area, and provide digital imagery and mapping products. Ellis also was an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer on remote sensing in 1995-96, and has organized numerous short courses on the subject for geologists.

"Remote sensing has been proven in the oil patch to be a very useful resource," he said. "Imagery helps to put the whole thing in context. Is a city nearby? Is my property in the middle of the forest? Are there swamps around the area? What do the well pads look like?"

At this time high-resolution images can only be obtained with aircraft. IKONOS 2, the world's first commercial imaging satellite capable of one-meter black and white resolution space imaging, hopes to successfully launch by the end of 1999.

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Jim Ellis gets excited when he talks about pictures on your desktop computer.

No, not those kinds of pictures.

Ellis is inspired by the wealth of surface images, map displays and other visual data now available to petroleum geologists. New technology and falling prices are bringing big-league tools to small computer screens.

"People now can get things on CD that truly level the playing field," he said, "so it's not just the big companies that can get access to this kind of information."

New sources of digital aerial photographs, satellite imagery and the introduction of versatile imaging software for personal computers will make desktop data display even more available and affordable.

And the big leap forward for integrated visual displays could be Internet accessibility.

Ellis called that emerging technology "almost ready for prime time" and predicted it will be widely used in the future.

"Data in the oil patch has become more of a commodity," he said. "There are companies out there that are acquiring the data and cleaning it up, and making it all available to anyone with a PC."

Those Eyes in the Skies

In talking about desktop imagery, Ellis can draw on his expertise in remote sensing capturing data by satellite or aircraft to image the land surface.

He supervised Chevron's remote sensing group for overseas operations from 1985 to 1997, and today is manager of remote sensing for The Map Factory and its new professional services subsidiary, HJW. These companies are based out of the Oakland, Calif., area, and provide digital imagery and mapping products. Ellis also was an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer on remote sensing in 1995-96, and has organized numerous short courses on the subject for geologists.

"Remote sensing has been proven in the oil patch to be a very useful resource," he said. "Imagery helps to put the whole thing in context. Is a city nearby? Is my property in the middle of the forest? Are there swamps around the area? What do the well pads look like?"

At this time high-resolution images can only be obtained with aircraft. IKONOS 2, the world's first commercial imaging satellite capable of one-meter black and white resolution space imaging, hopes to successfully launch by the end of 1999.

At least two aspects of the IKONOS project should interest geologists:

  1. First, the advent of high-resolution images will alleviate the fuzzy-picture syndrome of earlier satellite sensors.
  2. Second, Space Imaging promises to make the service commercial even for individuals, reportedly offering space images for as little as $30 apiece.

Ellis, who served as speaker for the Energy Minerals Division luncheon at the AAPG annual meeting in San Antonio, discussed the business advantages of desktop visuals -- including aerial images -- and presented a case study using real data compliments of Tobin International.

"What the progressive companies are doing is bringing in the imagery," he said. "In this case, the Landsat showed a very large strip-mining operation near the area of interest. If I was a potential investor in a nearby oil field, I'd probably be interested in knowing that."

Combining satellite images with well data and maps brings the geologist a clearer overall view of an area. It also provides a fix on the position of man-made features and allows for correction of data errors, Ellis noted.

"You could see from the imagery that three or four wells aren't on the well pad -- the data is wrong for those locations," he said. "The imagery lets you correct and update the well locations in the tabular database."

A Zoom with a View

In the past, integrating various types of information proved to be a hurdle for data display on large, highly capable systems, much less desktop computers. Until recently, one-at-a-time processing was the rule.

"People had built these incredible databases, but it was all tabular," Ellis said. "Just in the past few years companies have begun to integrate all the -- the buzzword is, ]disparate' -- data, including satellite images, air photos, maps, and tabular data."

Data consistency had as much to do with the solution as system efficiency. For instance, uniform location of surface points became possible with the Global Positioning System (GPS), which uses signals from a network of satellites to pinpoint locations and elevations.

"All of this integrated data is available in a form that can be easily viewed with off-the-shelf, PC-based software," he said. "Several of the companies that sell data even provide their own viewers.

"Now you can get data that's up to date, maps that are up to date, imagery that lets you know what's on the ground and a system that also lets you communicate with your partners."

Improvements in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) also make it easier to integrate data sources. New GIS software, such as ArcView, MapInfo, and Autodesk World, can combine maps, images and other visual displays of an area with tools that select and manipulate specific information, even charting production histories or decline curves for nearby wells.

Using the current generation of software, Ellis said, an operator in Dallas can easily send map and image information to a partner in Tulsa and say, "Look, we're 3,000 meters away from a political hot spot. Is it worth investing $20,000 here?

"Because of its need for interpreting surface and subsurface data, the petroleum industry has developed advanced capabilities in visual display," he continued. "The oil patch, in database maps and imagery, is way ahead of other sectors of the economy."

Images on the Internet

A next step could be the use of mapping engines on the World Wide Web -- new technology that will let anyone access base maps and overlay pertinent information.

"That's almost ready for ]prime time,'" he said. "People will be able to get very up-to-date information on any tract anywhere in the world they're interested in ... The independent could be sitting in El Paso and accessing images of Kazakhstan over the Internet."

Web searchers already can find sites with map engines that qualify as "works in progress" toward this future reality including:

ESRI, the California company that produces ArcView, provides a map server demonstration site on the Web at maps.esri.com

Petroleum Exchange in Denver utilizes a mapping program on its petroWEB site at www.petroweb.com

Gina Godfrey, vice president, said the site allows users to buy into a GIS map interface and add exploration-oriented data "a la carte." A subscription to utilize the map program costs $250 per month, or $2,500 per year. In addition to basics like production, geophysical and log data, the site includes an area for operators to post property information.

Petroleum Exchange also offers the map program for local installation on a company intranet, so proprietary information can be combined with purchased data, she said.

"The biggest reason mapping makes sense on the Net is that GIS systems traditionally have been big programs that you install on your PC," said Darcy Vaughan, president of Petroleum Exchange.

"But once you've done that, you've only gotten started."

Vaughan said he sees three major advantages to Internet map engine access:

The user needs only a Web browser and a free piece of plug-in software to use a map program.

The map service will maintain connections with data providers.

The service can reach out to disparate data sources from a variety of providers.

For companies that want to add proprietary data to a map display, the solution may be local installation of the mapping engine, according to Vaughan.

"The traditional problem people have had is collecting all this (outside) data and then putting their internal information on the system," he said. "You can put this inside a company system and all the proprietary data remain behind the firewall."

"I think the benefits of it are obvious," added PetroWeb's Matt Clyker. "You're sitting at a desktop and you don't have to go to a lot of different places for your information."

The biggest disadvantage, added, is connection speed, especially for viewing high resolution imagery.

"When you're dealing with a lot of data, things can get slow," he noted, and users with slow modems "will suffer," he warned and in general the world of desktop visual display is no place for outmoded equipment.

Think "upgrade."

Also, think computer technology. Ellis said he noticed some blank stares when he brought up the techie aspects of imagery at the San Antonio meeting.

"I know many people were uncomfortable with computers," he observed. "I said, ]Just hire a young person in your town.' You can go to the local high school and see who's bright, who's talented with this."

In other words, don't scoff at the kids and techies. They're making the revolution in imagery possible. Video games probably have done more to advance the technology than seismic interpretation and reservoir imaging combined.

"The driver isn't oil and gas," Ellis said. "The driver for this explosion in technology is the entertainment industry. It's kids needing more RAM to play their video games. It's Bill Gates and his operating systems.

"But with all this wonderful new technology available, why not take advantage of it?"

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