Navigating Uncharted Territory

Automating Road Detections in the Permian Basin

The economic environment of West Texas is changing dramatically. The ongoing chants of Drill, Baby, Drill are being supplemented with Wind, Baby, Wind. Installed wind power capacity in the region grew 52% in the last three years and solar electricity generation increased 44% between 2017 and 2018 alone.

All of these projects, both big and small, require one basic piece of infrastructure before construction can begin: roads.

Planet Basemaps

Understanding when and where road construction occurs in the Permian Basin is essential for the efficient movement of goods and services in the region. For businesses, this results in an improved bottom line for any operator in the region, even while the current price of oil hovers around $50 a barrel.

Planet Energy Basemaps provide frequent snapshots of a given sedimentary basin, and with machine learning analytics, it is possible to automatically detect road construction faster than any publicly available data source.

Fuel cost savings from reduced drive time compound as crew size increases

Large frac crews could save as much as $1M by driving just 5% less

Savings calculated from Planet analysis of drilling operation costs. For more information, contact

Loss of productivity and recorded employee downtime accounts for at least 6% of drilling operation costs. When you consider major business concerns such as hourly worker pay, the average size of crews operating in the region, fuel consumption costs per mile, miles driven annually, and hours worked into consideration, it becomes clear there are significant cost savings to be had for all operators in the basin, using all kinds of vehicles, if you could cut costs in just one of these areas.

For a company moving goods along these roads, automated road detection can reduce both cost and stress for everyone involved. With the better supply chain management and routing enabled by having a more accurate map of the region, automated road detections can lead to significant time and subsequently, monetary, savings.

These costs savings are fueled by one thing: driving less.

An American Oil Boom

Let’s take a closer look at West Texas.

The first commercial oil well in the region was drilled in 19201, marking the beginning of a history of oil production that has continued to the present day.

The Permian Basin is now the largest oil field in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. It rivals the Ghawar Oil Field in Saudi Arabia in production capacity and its potential to aid in American energy independence is shaking up the oil and gas industry.2

The Permian Basin is comprised of two main sub-basins: the Delaware Basin and the Midland Basin.

In November 2018, the United States Geological Survey announced that the Wolfcamp Shale and the overlying Bone Spring Formation, both located in the Delaware Basin, contain an estimated 46.6 billion barrels of oil.

This discovery makes these geologic features the largest continuous oil and gas assessments ever released, and the most productive regions for oil and gas in the United States. 3

Road construction in the region is booming as operators race to prospect in previously remote tracts of land. But, no one knows where all of the new roads are.

Most of the growth in recent years has involved constructing unnamed, leased roads over private or semi-private parcels of land. These roads are graded to allow for the movement of heavy equipment necessary for fracking and the transport of goods, water, wind turbines, or other machinery to construction sites.

Using Planet Basemaps, we can leverage computer vision to detect every road built in the last month across the 220,000 sq km the Delaware Basin.

Narrowing down to a region about 15 miles outside of Pecos, Texas, you’ll see that the roads in blue were automatically detected in our imagery.

Seeing something does not immediately mean it is useful information. How much of this is new or beneficial information for those that need to use these roads on a daily basis?

Planet compared our July 2018 road detections to the roads that are already available in OpenStreetMap (OSM).

Roads recorded in OSM as of March 2018

The roads available in OpenStreetMap are dateless, updated only when someone takes the time to edit them by hand.

Planet, on the other hand, is able to detect roads with no human intervention. Derived from Planet Basemaps, the resulting detections are recent and reliable.

One of Planet’s unique capabilities is providing continuously updated datasets, which are useful for time-series analysis.

Detecting Change

Because of the temporal density of Planet data, it is even possible to analyze not just where roads were detected, but when those roads appeared—often within days of their construction.



Comparing road detections between July 2018 and December 2018, we were able to determine programmatically where new roads appeared.

The ability to detect roads in a region with this degree of flexibility and frequency has never been possible before. Leveraging Planet Basemaps and imagery analytics, operators in the Permian Basin can see change in the areas they care the most about before anyone else. Detecting roads on this cadence means people can get where they are going faster, saving time and money for everyone involved.

Writing and Editing: Leanne Abraham and Deven Desai

Data Visualization: Leanne Abraham

Development: Leanne Abraham and Orestis Herodotou

Want to learn more?

Come meet us at our Planet Live event in Houston on May 14th!