Photo credit: Boeing. 

Drones are no longer reserved for finding the enemy in hard to reach places. Today we're seeing more companies explore new potential uses for these unmanned flying machines. From delivering packages for the world's top Internet retailer to flying beer to ice fishermen in Minnesota, drones are making new headlines every day. Those uses, however, only tap the surface of the wide-ranging potential of drones.

The oil industry is also exploring the this potential. Companies see a bright future for using drones in offshore oil discovery. From mapping out rock formations to keeping tabs on wildlife, unmanned aerial vehicles could help improve the industry's ability to find more oil while also safeguarding the environment.

A soaring expedition
ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) made history last year when it launched the first commercially approved drone flight in Alaska. The company used a ScanEagle drone built by a subsidiary of Boeing (NYSE:BA). ConocoPhillips hopes that drones like the ScanEagle can provide insights on marine mammals and ice so that it doesn't run into any issues once it begins drilling in the Arctic for oil.

There are questions whether that day might ever come, especially considering that Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B) is again shelving plans to drill in the Arctic this year. Shell, which spent more than $5 billion in the region, has yet to actually produce any oil from that effort. The company ran into a number of issues, including a drilling ship running aground and multiple legal challenges from environmentalists, as it started its quest to tap the vast oil resources in the Arctic.

ConocoPhillips hopes to avoid a similar fate, which is why it is gathering as much information as it can before it begins drilling. Using drones to track ice and mammal movements will help the company plan ahead for the logistical challenges of drilling in the region.

Photo credit: ConocoPhillips. 

Studying rocks from afar
Another use of drones in oil exploration activities is to remotely analyze rock formations. Scottish researchers have developed drones that can look at offshore rock cliffs that rise above the sea. These rock outcroppings are located in inaccessible and dangerous locations, which can best be reached by drones. By analyzing these rocks researchers can better understand similar rock layers buried underneath the North Sea.

According to University of Aberdeen geoscientist John Howell, "the drone-collected data is used to produce virtual maps of deep-sea rock formations that are accurate within less than a few millimeters." The goal of the project is to develop a database of rock formations that oil companies can use to build the models needed to find more oil in the region. The university intends to have drones in full use by the end of the year so that it can gather the information that will assist oil companies in finding oil.

Investor takeaway
Gone are the days when an oil company would drill in a place where it hoped to find oil. Today's oil explorers use data driving technology to target areas where there is a high certainty that oil and gas exists. As technology improves, so should oil companies' returns, as less money will be wasted drilling a dry hole.

One company with the technology to take down OPEC

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