Data & Analytics

Satellite Constellation Could Upend Seismic-Acquisition Industry

For years, the oil and gas industry has stored its seismic data on tape. While that had been the best format for the time, it wasn’t very efficient. Now, a rapidly growing network of satellites, coupled with cloud storage, is set to neutralize that problem.

An array of 60 Starlink satellites waits to be deployed from the cargo hold of a SpaceX rocket.
Credit: SpaceX.

For years, the oil and gas industry has stored its seismic data on tape. While that had been the best format for the time, it wasn’t very efficient. The time needed to transfer data for analysis, and transfer that analysis back to the field, could be excruciatingly long, on the order or weeks or months. Now, a rapidly growing network of satellites, coupled with cloud storage, is set to neutralize that problem.

“There is a tremendous amount of time lost in the industry using tape,” said Guy Holmes, founder and chief executive officer of Tape Ark, “and the satellite constellation does stand to disrupt that in a way to bring data continuously back streaming directly into your office.”

Holmes has made saving the tape-bound data, and eliminating the need for it, his business. His first foray into liberating this data came in the form of balloons. Holmes used high-altitude balloons supplied by Google to loft transmitters and receivers so seismic data could be beamed from the source off site for analysis. The balloons were difficult to control, and Google soon lost interest, but space-exploration company SpaceX may be coming to the rescue.

“In the end, it became a little too hard, and Google had leased all of its balloons and had a backlog of other work to do,” Holmes said. “So, they suggested I talk to SpaceX.”

SpaceX is building a network of communication satellites called Starlink. Starlink already has nearly 500 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and has FAA approval to launch up to 30,000. “It’s growing by 60 satellites at a time,” Holmes said, adding, “They’re trying to achieve somewhere around 25 to 30 launches a year. It’s a pace that nobody has been able to achieve.”

The rapid pace of satellite placement is related to SpaceX’s ability to reuse its boosters, which land on a pad rather than drop into the ocean as boosters did in the past. This allows them to be cleaned and refueled quickly for another launch.

The original intent of Starlink was to provide Internet coverage for farming areas and other rural areas that could not get coverage. “It seems like an old-school kind of thing that, maybe 5 years ago, may have seemed like something that was a bit crazy,” Holmes said, “but they’re all over it. Their launches are on sequence, their cadence is correct, and they’re on target for their 1,440 satellites to be up and fully functioning by the end of 2020.”

The individual satellites have only a 3- or 4-year lifespan, after which they will slide into the atmosphere. The satellites are designed using material that is intended to burn up completely upon reentry. The limited lifespan serves the purpose of preventing the LEO area from becoming more crowded with space junk than it already is and providing opportunities to update the network.

Currently, Starlink is focused on midlatitude coverage, but, by 2022, the constellation is expected to provide full global and ocean coverage. Holmes’ idea is to use the idle time satellites experience over the ocean to transmit seismic data.

“Out in the ocean, without the laser comms, really satellites are idle, and they use that bit of down time to cool off and other things,” he said. “But, overall, they’re just idle. So, the oil industry is going to benefit significantly from satellites that are essentially floating overhead that are not being used by the general public.”

Transmission speeds with Starlink are expected to be 100 Mbps download and 40 Mbps upload, which can be tuned to increase the upload vs. the download. Seismic boats, however, can see speeds up to 1 Gbps if they pair two parabolic antennas, which, in general, they already have for communications.

“In looking at seismic shooting and the volumes of data they bring in, it’s about 750 to 100 megabites per 6 to 10 seconds,” Holmes said, “and the 1-gigabit connection can well and truly keep up with that pace.”

Analyzing a standard use case, Holmes figured that using tape to store seismic data would cost approximately $305,000, including the cost of the media and storage in off-site vaults. For that cost, he said, the data could be stored in the cloud for nearly 12 years. “Going directly to the cloud is a seriously viable option now and worth thinking about.”

The vast quantities of data produced have created a problem for past digital-upload solutions. To ease the choking, filters had been put in place to allow transmission of only select data. Getting all data transmitted, Holmes said, is one of the goals.

“I believe one of the solutions is the Starlink system,” he said. “It’s going to enable some very significant data flows globally at speed, and it will increase over time. So, I urge everyone to keep an eye on what SpaceX is doing in this space if you’re involved in the telecoms area, particularly for offshore.”

These new massive data flows will carry many benefits, including always-on high-definition video, which could allow engineers to provide real-time over-the-shoulder support for technicians working on repairs in the field. This solution will also facilitate processes with digital twins.

“If you’re a data manager in one of these oil companies, you’re used to receiving a seismic survey months or even a year after it was created for you to catalog and input into a system and manage,” Holmes said. “This is going to bring data managers to the coal face in real time. It’s going to bring QC [quality control] people off of the boat and into the office … because the data will be streaming directly into their company.”

Holmes urges data managers to be prepared for this new reality. “This is going to turn a lot of things into real-time, and that’s going to require data managers with a really switched-on view of a) how the cloud works and b) how to move petabyte-scale content cost effectively and to the right places.”

While this global communications network may seem like far-future science fiction, “Starlink is real,” Holmes said, “and it will be functioning by the end of this year.”

“Don’t think this isn’t real or isn’t going to impact you,” he said. “In fact, the companies that look to take advantage of it will get significant competitive advantage over the next few years.”