Drones have had a slow takeoff in the oilfield, despite their potential, but that could be about to change in the Williston Basin in a big way, and a Williston company is positioning itself to lead that charge.

B & G Oilfield Services has recently hired a pioneer in the drone industry, from none other than Hollywood, to help the company develop a world class drone division. Joel Peterson is the man’s name, and he was among those with a booth at the recent Bakken Oil Product and Service Show held Wednesday and Thursday in Williston.

Peterson has worked in both film and television for about a decade before making what he calls a “segue” into oil and gas. The sideways leap was similar to one he made when drones first came out.

“I had a friend come from a show in Alaska, and he pulled out his phone and said hey, check this out,” Peterson recalls.

The video his friend showed him was made by one of those early, clunky drones and it followed a dirt bike — something that’s almost cliché for a drone to do now. But at that time, this was relatively new, and Peterson couldn’t contain his excitement. He knew instantly that this was going to revolutionize everything in the film and entertainment business, and he wasted no time buying one of his own immediately.

“They had these really basic, servo-driven gimbals,” Peterson said, “so the footage was really shaky.”

Gimbals are a series of rings at right angles used to keep a compass or chronometer horizontal in a moving aircraft.

The results of these early drones required a lot of stabilization, Peterson recalled. But they were still really good stuff. So good, Peterson jumped headlong into writing an operations manual, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration, so his company could be one of the first to work with drones commercially in national air space.

“My company was the 25th in the United States to get authorization to fly commercially,” Peterson said. “And I’ve traveled all over doing so many jobs. Commercials, music, videos, television shows — Bosh is an Amazon show, and the most recent I’ve worked on.”

By positioning himself as one of the first in the film industry to do all things drone, doors in Hollywood opened up to him. That led to conversations with people he might never have otherwise had a chance to talk to. One of these was Robert McLachlan, the cinematographer for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

McLachlan gave Peterson some advice that stuck, and ultimately led him to the Bakken.

“His big advice to me was to get out of L.A. and move to a smaller market,” Peterson said. “‘Your market value will go a lot farther, versus staying here and being one of the many,’ he told me.”

In the meantime, Peterson was hired by BP to do a series of six, two- to three-minute safety videos not long after the movie “Deepwater Horizon,” which is about an oilfield catastrophe on a deepwater drilling rig.

“There I saw that there was this huge side of the drone business that I had never even thought about before,” Peterson said.

That potential had Peterson searching online for drone jobs in oil patches, just to see what might be out there. That’s when B & G popped up. They were looking for someone to start a drone division for them.

“They flew me out and I did a job where we inspected 126 miles of pipeline,” Peterson said. “At the end of two weeks, they pulled me in and made me an offer.”

Peterson was torn. It was a very attractive opportunity, and not just for monetary reasons. He felt he’d already learned about all he could about drones and film. This would be an opportunity to expand his drone horizons in a completely new field, and that was exciting.

But did he really want to leave L.A.? Did he really want to quit the film business he’d been doing for so long?

Ultimately, it was McLachlan’s off-handed advice that tilted his decision toward the Bakken. And he’s not regretting it in the least.

“It’s been fun,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot these drones can do on the inspection side in the oil and gas sector. They were doing this with full-size aircraft and satellite imagery, which couldn’t have been cheap. This is safer and more cost-effective for clients.”

Drones have enormous potential to help with leak prevention and safety, Peterson said.

“Really, there was a great case in point last week,” he said. “We were inspecting a pipeline right of way and discovered a sunken trench. We reported it to our client, and that was just a one-call, to go out and fix.”

Leaks can be spotted in winter with infrared cameras that see variances in temperature. On the well pad side, “fugitive gas emissions” — or emissions on the loose when they shouldn’t be — can also be detected. Emergency response crews can use drones to take in real-time data to speed their response.

While the Bakken Oil and Product Show was a chance for Peterson to make a few contacts and get some good leads, it also allowed him to meet engineers from other companies with even more ideas for drones that he hadn’t yet considered.

“The sky is literally the limit here,” Peterson said. “B & G is, I would say, leading the drone companies out here with who we are servicing and what we are providing and the certifications we hold.”

Among these is certification through Texas Engineering Extension, more commonly referred to as TEEX.

“All the major oil companies are wanting drone companies who work for them to have that,” Peterson said. 

He said his company was among the first in North Dakota to earn that certification.

That took four months of training, he said, and was one of the harder things he’s done. But maybe not harder than writing the drone manual, back when he started using drones commercially in the film industry, he added.

Peterson hasn’t altogether given up film, by the way. He recently let his film industry contacts know that he can take work in the Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas. And as a result, he is already working on footage for a Chicago company that makes fungicides for wheat fields.

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