Predator Inspections is using an enterprise-class drone with multiple high-end specialty sensor package

“Coal transition” in action for dragline and dozer operator

ESTEVAN – There’s been a lot of talk about “just transition,” “energy transition” and “coal transition,” but precious little action converting fossil fuel workers to new industries. Rod Cullen, a coal miner from Estevan, is bucking that trend and has launched a business to allow him to eventually “transition” away from his job operating dozers and draglines. He’s also the first currently employed coal miner to successfully secure coal transition funding to help launch a new venture.

That funding was from the Southeast Saskatchewan Economic Partnership and the City of Estevan. The money originated from the Government of Saskatchewan, not the federal government.

This summer Cullen launched Predator Inspections, which uses a high-end, enterprise-quality drone and multiple different sensor packages to provide detailed inspection reports. While he’s targeting oil and gas, he’s also working on developing markets from municipal to agriculture to power.

Rod Cullen, owner, Predator Inspections

“We’re launching a business,” Cullen said on June 10. The “we” refers to his wife and business partner, Brandy Cullen, who handles the administration and marketing side of the business in addition to her own venture, SE Bookkeeping Services.

Cullen said, “We’re using my aviation background to segue into drones. They changed the drone laws, which favours my aviation background and training. And I have experience flying low and flying oilfield inspections.”

 

Enterprise drone

This is not a drone you pick up at Staples. This drone, combined with its sensors, is considered an aircraft by Transport Canada. It required Cullen to get special training and Transport Canada licensing known as an advanced RPAS (Small Remotely Piloted Aircraft System), certificate of registration for the aircraft, as well as the necessary insurance.

This drone is also built strong enough to deal with prairie winds and weather.

The aviation business has always been a key part of Cullen’s life. Out of high school, he obtained his commercial pilot’s licence. But colour blindness limited his opportunities flying, so he went into the oilfield and worked in hydraulic fracturing with Schlumberger for nine years. Then he became a coal miner at Estevan for most of the last nearly 13 years. He took some time off from the mine to get his agricultural aerial spraying training in North Battleford, with a commercial pesticide license and aerial applicator certification.

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Then he spent over a year doing aerial pipeline inspection, again, flying low. But eventually he returned to mining.

Rod Cullen. Photos by Brian Zinchuk

 

The problem is that the federal government has decreed that conventional coal-fired power generation  must end by 2030, and unless carbon capture is expanded among the remaining coal fleet, there won’t be much need for miners after that time. Even if SaskPower continues to operate the carbon capture-equipped Boundary Dam Unit 3 past 2030, if the other units in the fleet shut down, there won’t be much coal used beyond that.

So for Cullen, as with other miners, the clock has been ticking to find a “Plan B.”

This drone can be equipped with a variety of highly specialized sensors for specific applications.

Drone tech ready for big time

The drone idea combines his skill in and love of flying with a practical business opportunity. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, have become dramatically more capable in recent years. While the Ukraine War has shown their crucial utility in warfighting, the number of civilian applications are staggering.

And the DJI Matrice M300RTK (Real Time Kinematics) Cullen is flying is among the most capable available for civilian applications.

“That’s why we started Predator Inspections,” Cullen said. “We want to focus on these sensors. There’s the laser methane sensor, for example, that can pinpoint where leaks are coming from, and save companies and operators time.”

Here are three of the views from the quad sensor – top left is the wide angle, providing a sense of location. Bottom left is thermal. Bottom right is high power zoom, which is aligned with the laser methane detector. Top right shows the drone overhead. The quad sensor is on the left, and laser methane detector is on the right. In this case, it was about 20 metres above when taking the other images.

Wide, zoom, thermal and rangefinder sensor

So far Cullen has four sensor packages. The first he’s operating is a quad-sensor. It records from four cameras/sensors simultaneously. One is a wide angle, which provides the general view. The inspection camera is 20 megapixel with 23x zoom. Mounted on a stabilized gimbal, it can get incredibly detailed shots of hard to reach places, like tall flare stacks, oilfield facility roofs, tanks and racks, smokestacks, bridges, power pylons and more. Its magnification is strong enough to read serial numbers off of nameplates from a substantial distance away. Cracks, damage and the like can be seen.

The same system also has a thermal camera which allows the operator to pinpoint exact temperatures. A choice of colour palettes allows the operator to choose one that provides the most detail for the application.

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This thermal ability can be especially useful, as heat is often an indicator of something about to go wrong, from a hot bearing to an electric motor. Hot wiring can also be indicative of a fault. That allows an inspection to identify possible failure points before they become an issue, allowing preventative maintenance before a failure results in a shutdown.

The thermal camera can also be used for search and rescue.

This sensor package can also be used to do inspections in hard to reach places that are high, or could be a sour gas environment. Instead of sending people in, masked up with supplied air on hoses, or self-contained breathing apparatus, the drone can fly overhead and do extremely high resolution inspections.

The green dot just to the right of the flange indicates the laser methane detector sensor. This is an actual screenshot taken by the quad sensor. Using them together, the methane detector finds emissions, and the quad sensor records where they are.

Methane detection and ESG

One of the key sensors is a laser methane detector.

“We believe we’re the only one in southeast Saskatchewan with this equipment. I think we’re the only one in the province with this laser methane sensor,” he said.

This sensor points a green laser and quantifies any methane that may be emitted. This can be from a wellhead, flange, piping, or thief hatch. And by mounting the laser methane detector alongside the quad-sensor, Cullen can measure the methane, get a wide angle, high power zoom and thermal video all at the same time, pinpointing possible leaks for repair. He can aim the sensor package at a pipe rack, for instance, and follow the pipes, looking for leaks, all the while recording video and quantifying any potential methane emissions. The same can be done for thief hatches or flanges.

This is a key, as international agreements and federal regulations are becoming increasingly strict on methane emissions. Methane, the prime component of “natural gas,” is considered to be roughly 21x more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So raw methane emissions, from venting or other processes, have been heavily targeted by regulators, and that is likely only to increase.

Methane was detected at this flange. This is an actual screenshot taken from the quad sensor, but the text box was added for emphasis.

 

Oil and gas companies are under increasing pressure to provide environment, social and governance statements (ESG) in their reporting to financial markets and investors. Most larger producers are doing this on an annual basis, at minimum, and some are now providing quarterly ESG statements. Predator can do a baseline evaluation of a companies facilities, and then follow up surveys can show, with hard data, that yes, Oil Company A has reduced operational methane emissions from its facilities by X per cent.

And this is an important part of the business plan. This methane sensor is capable of providing actual methane concentration measurements, as opposed to just visual reference. Thus Predator Inspections can provide a baseline survey of a facility, identifying and quantifying any possible methane emissions. Then, after any maintenance or mitigation work is done, say during a turnaround, a follow-up inspection can evaluate the facility and provide hard, verifiable numbers showing the improvement.

For instance, before a vapour recovery system is installed on a battery, a baseline evaluation could quantify any emissions. A follow-up inspection can then provide hard numbers on the emissions reductions after the vapour recovery system and other mitigation work is complete.

This makes local operations look good to corporate offices in Calgary, and the oil companies improve their ESG scores with investors in New York and Toronto.

“Our sensors and the information you get from that can definitely improve your company’s ESG profile and your annual and quarterly ESG reports,” Cullen said. “Our sensors are able to provide your company with verified reduction information.”

 

2D mapping and 3D modeling

Another sensor package is the Zenmuse P1, which is a smart oblique 2D mapping, 3D modelling camera. It’s a 35 mm lens, 45 megapixel camera. By programming the drone to fly a specific pattern over a site such as a battery, gas plant, industrial facility or even municipal locations, the sensors takes thousands of photos from specific angles and directions, allowing later processing into a two dimensional map and a three dimensional model. This can useful for everything from drainage applications to measuring the volume of gravel pile to municipal planning. The applications are pretty much endless.

“This sensor is more efficient for all sorts of modelling. People don’t realize how much easier things can be done. You can do highly accurate measurements of things like roofs, for instance, without putting people in danger,” Cullen said.

It can provide up to centimetre-grade models and maps, which is orders of magnitude more detailed than using satellite imagery. One possible application would be for environmental assessment of a site, both before and after.

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Agricultural applications

The fourth sensor package is focused on agriculture. The Altum PT (panchromatic thermal) sensor has seven features. It does a lot of the processing steps on board, as opposed to later processing.

“It’s designed to check the photosynthesis of plants,” Cullen said.

“It’s checking crops during the growing season, so you can see if you have issues with bugs, weeds or disease,” he said. “Ideally, you’d want to do it every two to three weeks, to keep on top, before bugs cause any damage. An agronomist can go out and scout a few spots, but this can check the whole field.”

“You can put these files into your spray rigs and do precision ag, saving you input costs. It is big numbers. It adds up. Spraying 120 acres instead of 640 acres is huge.”

The quality of the drone data is way better than satellite imagery, he pointed. It’s not blocked by overcast conditions, as a satellite might be, he noted. You also don’t have to wait several days for the next satellite pass.

The sensor can do plant counting for yield estimate for corn, for instance.

 

Taking off

Cullen notes that there will be many applications that he has not thought of yet that a client may wish try out, thinking outside of the box.

For now, Cullen is still working shifts at the mine, moving large amounts of dirt. As Predator Inspections takes off, literally, he hopes to eventually move over to its operation full time. In doing so, he’ll be one of the first coal miners in Estevan to have taken advantage of the “coal transition” program, as it was intended.

 

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“More that we need to do,” says federal Minister of Natural Resources regarding coal transition