If there are secrets hidden in and around the Hockley Salt Dome in Harris County, Texas, Mike Allison, retired geologist, wants to find them.
“This survey will allow me to detect any temperature anomalies in the area, which can be used to identify potential geological features,” he said.
To do that, Allison, uses his company’s drone technology. He founded Raptor Aerial Services, which specializes in aerial drone photography and videography.
Nobody hired him. He simply wants to.
The why of the story is as interesting as the what.
“In 2015 I purchased my first drone,” he said – a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, due to his interest in drone photography.
“Once I discovered that drones could be used to make maps, I was hooked!” he added.
For Allison, who has worked for both Gulf Oil and Chevron, as well as Devon Energy and Fieldwood Energy, Raptor Aerial is the next stage, his second career – and it is, in a very real sense, a labor of love.
At the moment, Hockley is the focus of his passion.
Discovered in 1924, Hockley is one of the largest of the known salt domes of the Gulf Coast region. The value of studying the region has less to do with the potential for oil production – there are some oil wells on the sides – as it does to its proximity to the United Salt Corporation and Coastal Prairie Conservancy, an organization committed to land conservation and stewardship. United Salt produces salt for food, chemical processing, oilfield drilling and production fluids, de-icing, agricultural feed, and industrial and residential water softening. Coastal Prairie, meanwhile, owns much of the land – almost 25,000 acres in the area – and is keen on protecting it.
For his part, Allison has 17 years of IT leadership experience and is a geoscientist by education. Most of his IT experience has been focused on directly supporting key exploration and production departments, including geosciences, engineering, spatial/GIS, land and supervisory control and data acquisition – known in the field as “SCADA.” He has worked for different oil and gas companies, including majors and independents, and service companies.
All of those skills he acquired are in play now.
So why this project? And why now?
“My primary motivation has been to acquire an RGB (red, green, blue) and IR (infrared) visible drone survey over a geologically interesting area. I chose the Hockley Salt Dome because it is well known, accessible, and generally free of obstacles,” he said.
He said he has always thought of Hockley as both subtle and broad and ripe for exploration.
“It’s always been interesting from an oil and gas perspective, especially associated with a salt dome,” he said.
Drone-based thermal is traditionally used for looking at human infrastructure such as roofs, HVAC systems, solar panels, petroleum storage tanks, as well as fire hazards, and search and rescue, but Allison thinks the technology can be used more broadly.
“I am trying to better understand other applications of thermal including traditional mapping applications,” he said. “What can thermal IR help us see on the ground surface?”
Specifically, the thermal infrared survey, Allison said, will provide a detailed map of the area, which can be used to detect and measure the temperature of the surface of the salt dome – the features that manifest themselves on the surface, such as fractures, faults and other geological features.
He said the flying drone thermal IR surveys have an advantage over traditional multidisciplinary methods of geological mapping that entail petrology, structural geology, geomorphology, paleontology, stratigraphy and sedimentology.
“First,” talking of the drones, “they are able to cover large areas quickly and efficiently, allowing for more detailed mapping of geological formations. Second, they are able to detect subtle changes in temperature, which can be used to identify different types of rocks and minerals. Third, they are able to capture images in real time, allowing for rapid analysis of the data. Finally, they are relatively inexpensive compared to other methods of geological mapping,” Allison explained.
Additionally, the use of drones for oil and gas firms can increase safety, reduce risk and save time. Equally important, he said, is the amount of data that can be collected.
Admittedly, Allison concedes the data collected by drones is presently of lower quality than that collected by traditional methods, but he is confident that will improve as the technology advances.
At present, in the oil and gas industry, drones are deployed for a variety of applications, including inspection of offshore and onshore facilities, refining equipment, leak detection in pipelines and other midstream assets, emergency response and material handling.
Allison wants to increase drones’ bandwidth.
And he clearly has a special affinity to the place.
He and his company have been involved with more than 80 drone surveys and mapped more than 11,000 acres. At Hockley alone, he has provided the Coastal Prairie Conservancy with maps of more than 530 acres.
“It was exciting to work with Mike Allison and Raptor Aerial to conduct drone surveys over the Hockley Salt Mine,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, president and CEO of Coastal Prairie.
Allison’s work encourages her organization to think about other uses of aerial imagery that could assist with its land conservation and restoration efforts, she said.
“For example, the use of the drone could allow us to document our properties from all angles as well as to have more up-to-date information than can often be provided by other aerial/map platforms,” Piacentini explained.
She went on to say that accurate and timely aerial imaging can also help the Coastal Prairie Conservancy work to “protect habitat, ensure biodiversity, and manage large landscapes for the benefit of people and wildlife.”
“Along with geologic features, such as faults and fractures, the products derived from the drone surveys can be used for planning and better understanding how the underlying salt affects both plant and animal life,” he said.