Satellite Imaging to Offer Sharper View of Remote Oil, Gas Operation


Satellite imaging is playing a greater role in the management of exploration and production operations as operators increase activity in remote areas not easily accessible by plane.

Officials with Longmont, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe – a commercial high-resolution earth observation and advanced geospatial solutions company – and digital imagery and service company Spatial Energy, which it acquired earlier this year, say oil and gas companies are using satellite imagery to not only monitor exploration and access facilities, but for emergency response and environmental monitoring, and for seismic and new well planning. Satellite imaging is also allowing oil and gas companies to monitor for the illegal tapping of pipelines and pipeline oil spills.

The oil and gas industry has been the sole vertical on which Boulder-based Spatial has focused since its establishment 8 years ago; Spatial’s oil and gas customers are using satellite data to manage operations throughout their enterprises. Spatial’s satellite imaging technology is used by 12 of the top 20 largest oil and gas companies, said Bud Pope, co-founder and president of Spatial. Pope, who owned a seismic software company in the mid-1990s, saw an opportunity for a U.S. company that could supply satellite imaging after unsuccessfully looking for data to supply to seismic customers.

Since Spatial’s founding, DigitalGlobe and Spatial have been longtime commercials partners. Spatial, which aggregates multiple sources of remote sensing data, has been solely focused on oil and gas companies since its inception.

DigitalGlobe, which was founded in 1992 and launched its first commercial satellite in 2002, serves the mining, utility, insurance, engineering and construction, humanitarian and entertainment industries. The company – whose major customer roster includes the U.S. government – also provides federal, state and local government agencies worldwide with satellite and aerial imagery for project mapping, and supplies satellite imagery to the defense and intelligence communities.

DigitalGlobe’s technology has also been used in the oil and gas industry, including the restoration and the right-of-way along the 497 mile (800-kilometer) TransSakhalin pipeline project.

Spatial provides over 50 different geospatial data sets; customers can adapt information solutions to meet their individual needs. Spatial on Demand, the company’s cloud-based spatial data management and delivery platform, integrates vast archives of geospatial data into a centralized online database that can be access worldwide.

The acquisition by DigitalGlobe will give Spatial access to unrestricted satellite access to every point on earth. DigitalGlobe’s satellites, which follow the sun and travel at 25,000 miles per hour at approximately 372 miles (600 kilometers) above the earth, can gather 1.2 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) a day of satellite images, Bert Turner, DigitalGlobe’s SVP of sales and marketing, told Rigzone.


DigitalGlobe and Spatial’s technology won’t replace seismic, but the data they provide is downloaded into streams and software packages that can then do seismic interpretation. Satellite has been incorporated into land-operation intensive seismic surveys as a means to control costs.

“You can see the digital model on seismic data and tell the accuracy of data, such as whether anything on the surface is causing a quality issue, and where should I plan my next seismic program,” said Pope.

The boon in shale activity worldwide, which presents a logistical challenge in terms of the number of rigs, vehicles, and workers at a play, presents a huge opportunity for satellite monitoring. With new roads, pipes and drilling pads being implemented on a regular basis, the ability of companies to get daily, weekly and monthly updates on operations is more critical than ever.

The need of oil and gas companies to monitor hundreds of miles of pipeline and large operational areas that span continents make satellites a cost-effective means of large scale observation and monitoring compared with surveys via airplane, said Turner. Monitoring operations in countries such as China, Africa and the Arctic – which the global oil and gas industry is eyeing for possible exploration – via airplane can be difficult.

Archived imagery also allows companies to monitor the massive problem of oil theft and bunkering that is occurring worldwide. Geospatial technology can allow companies to monitor and estimate the impact of oil theft, which leads to predictive analysis of hot spots and number of barrels of oil stolen.

A number of oil and gas customers that DigitalGlobe and Spatial work with like satellite imagery in that it can serve as a base map for multiple operating areas, and can serve as a basis for comparison, said Pope.

“Satellites can make a big difference. The more bands you have, the more you can say about the spectrum, including vegetation, oil sheen, rock types and fault networks,” said Pope.

Since the mid-1990s, satellite technology has made major strides, going from resolution of 9 feet (3 meters) to 19 inches (50 centimeters), allowing for greater detail of a rig or truck to be seen. One major breakthrough is the ability to quickly import satellite imaging data into a desktop or analytical tool, and the reduction of the analytical process from months to minutes, tanks to proprietary technology developed by DigitalGlobe and its partnership with the U.S. government.

The geospatial data that DigitalGlobe and Spatial are working with is true Big Data, with file sizes as large as 68 petabytes. Spatial’s on demand platform “makes Big Data management much more manageable,” and has created significant demand for Spatial’s product, said Pope. With cloud platforms, moving data files of this size around the world would require lots of old school days and weeks of work.

DigitalGlobe’s technology can work with any cloud platform available, and data can be integrated into the workflow of oil and gas companies and the seismic platforms they use. Customers can reach DigitalGlobe on a 24/7 basis, and satellites can be moved over an area within hours of a request.

To gather images, optical and radar are used. Radar can be used to see through clouds to detect oil seeps on the ocean floor. Radar offers a nice complement to optical imagery. Digital elevation models also allow for the monitoring of subsea nearshore bathymetry. Satellite monitoring can allow for imaging in reasonably clear water down to 98 feet (30 meters).

Short-wave infrared allows for the analysis of rock properties, and while it doesn’t eliminate the need for field observation, it can help companies hone in on areas that are more interesting from a rock perspective.

Oil and gas companies who use earth observation satellite imagery are just on the beginning of the curve in terms of applications. The supermajors have embraced the technology, but large independents and national oil companies have yet to realize its full potential, marking a case of technology pacing out in front of companies’ understanding of its potential.

“People know what to do with seismic and with a well log, but we’re just scratching the surface in terms of satellite imaging applications.”


At this time, very few provider satellite providers are available for commercial use; the French, through Airbus, offer commercial satellites. The remaining satellites are national satellites, primarily for national security.

DigitalGlobe will offer an even sharper view of their exploration and production operations and assets with the launch of its WorldView3 satellite this summer. WorldView 3 will allow DigitalGlobe to gather 1.2 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) of satellite imagery at 12 inches (30 centimeters), which marks a “really big game changer” in the industry.

The satellite, currently being developed by Ball Aerospace, will be the first commercial imaging satellite with an atmospheric sensor as part of its payload. The satellite will address the challenges of automated information extraction and change detection, two fundamental challenges the remote sensing community has faced when using Earth imagery on a global scale.

WorldView 3 will be the first satellite to have 16 high-resolution spectral bands that capture information in the visible and near-infrared (VNIR), and short wave infrared (SWIR) regions of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). The satellite, which will operate at an expected altitude of 383 miles (617 kilometers), will offer 12 inch/19 inch (31/50-cm) panchromatic resolution, 4.9 foot/6.6 foot (1.25/2 meter) VNIR resolution, and 12 foot/24 foot (3.7/7.5 meter) SWIR resolution.

The satellite’s atmospheric sensor is capable of detecting the presence of clouds, aerosols and water vapor at 98-foot (30-meter) resolution, thereby measuring the exact atmospheric conditions corresponding to every recorded image.

The satellite’s multi-spectral band technology can detect different mineral types, including underwater mapping and coastal mapping. The satellite’s technology will allow it to detect the difference between an apple and a cherry tree and how much water is contained in them, said Pope.

Remote sensing satellites view Earth from above the atmosphere, but materials on Earth’s surface absorb and reflect light at surface level, so only surface-reflectance data truly represent the natural of the materials, according to a DigitalGlobe report.

“Changes in the atmosphere, sun illumination and viewing geometries during image capture result in inconsistent image data, hindering automated information extraction and change detection.”

Atmospheric conditions typically change during and between different imagery collections due to varying moisture levels (water vapor) and particulates (aerosols) in the atmosphere. Much research has been done trying to accurately convert the top-of-the-atmosphere measurements to surface-reflectance measurements.

According to DigitalGlobe, several models have been developed to compensate for these atmospheric conditions and the viewing geometries of various satellites. The remote sensing research community has created normalized indices to counter some atmospheric conditions with limited success. However, the availability of accurate atmospheric measurements at appropriate scale, ensuing imagery can be normalized.

Satellite imagery at this level of resolution can be sold to the U.S. government, but not to commercial entities. DigitalGlobe is working with many parties in the U.S. government to get these national security restrictions lifted, said Turner. The company is optimistic that this restriction will be lifted.


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