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A new helicopter drone is under development to sniff for methane emissions at well sites.

During a trial run in July, the drone named Raven could find gas leaking from a pair of well sites a half mile from each other in the Fayetteville Shale of Arkansas.

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General Electric is developing the drone at its new $125 million oil and gas technology center in Oklahoma City.

Detecting and stopping leaks, a requirement the Environmental Protection Agency enacted earlier this year, is the first of many planned applications for oilfield drones to make workers more productive in an industry that has suffered billions of dollars in spending cuts, hundreds of thousands of layoffs and more than 100 bankruptcies in North America over the past two years.

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A broader benefit will come from Raven’s custom software, used to plan flight paths and easily interpret the mountains of data it gathers.

“When you think of Project Raven and the usage of new tools and applications, it’s going to be key to take the industry forward,” Lorenzo Simoneli, chief executive at GE Oil & Gas, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “There’s a lot that you can do going forward to help drive productivity.”

The world’s largest oilfield contractors are grappling with new ways to set themselves apart with inventions that not only capture massive amounts of data but also make it user-friendly for oil companies.

As more advanced sensors roll out, the amount of oilfield data grows faster than companies know what to do with it. Key oil and gas decision makers have access to only about one percent of the available data, analysts said. The rest is unstructured or unusable.

GE’s oilfield drone project began last year after some of its other industrial divisions explored how they could use unmanned aircraft. Other applications could include inspecting flare stacks at refineries or checking gear for mechanical wear and corrosion.

The test in July was done in partnership with Southwestern Energy Co. and Oklahoma State University. The drone technology looked promising enough Southwestern remains interested in testing the Raven again, said Douglas Jordan, director of the natural gas and oil producer’s corporate environmental program, said. It’s still too early to say what kind of cost savings the drone could produce, he said.

GE is working on having Raven make methane inspections go three times faster, said Ashraf El-Messidi, a research engineer for GE working on the project. Under the current way, a worker must walk around the well with an infrared camera to check for leaks. And even if one is discovered, it works like a smoke detector, giving only a yes or no answer, but not saying how significant the leak might be, he said.

In another month, GE will launch a third test drone, this one a black-and-red model with six sets of helicopter blades, each 21 inches long. Weighing in under 20 pounds, the drone can glide through the air at up to 50 miles an hour, powered by six rechargeable batteries. The true value in GE’s modified drone is being able to fly as long as 40 minutes, carrying a laser-based sensor that shoots back live methane data to an iPad-wielding worker on the ground.

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