To transport workers and supplies to remote camps and help surveyors make their rounds on Alaska’s North Slope, Geokinetics Inc. relies on Tucker’s versatile Sno-Cats
When a contractor has a limited window of opportunity to complete a project, productivity really counts. And when that work occurs in the extreme, harsh, winter weather found on Alaska’s North Slope, so does safety and environmental sensitivity, which is why Geokinetics Inc. relies heavily on Sno-Cats from Tucker Sno-Cat Corp.
Geokinetics’ fleet of 16 rubber-tracked Sno-Cats do yeomen’s work in helping crews provide geophysical mapping services for oil exploration and drilling companies throughout the expansive North Slope. The company uses the vehicles, with capacities of two to 12 passengers, to transport employees from camps to and from work sites out in the field; rendezvous with ski planes to pick up and transport supplies from remote locations to work camps; and as mobile offices for surveyors.
“We also use them as ambulances and for advance scouting work,” says Larry Watt, the business development manager for the Alaska division of Geokinetics, headquartered in Houston.
BUILT FOR SPEED
The company used to use two-track vehicles that could travel up to 5 or 6 mph. But the Sno-Cats can travel up to 25 mph, although Watt says they typically don’t exceed 10 to 12 mph, both for safety reasons and to extend their field life.
“It’s not flat snow out there,” he notes. “There are lots of hummocks and banks, so you can tear up the machines pretty good if you drive too fast.”
The company can only work when there’s snow on the ground, which is generally from January through April. That’s because permits to work on the sensitive tundra are issued only if there’s at least six inches of snow on the ground and 12 inches of frost.
Moreover, it can cost up to $30 million to outfit and operate a crew of about 120 to 150 people, which includes the expense of about a dozen Vibroseis seismic vibrators. As such, speed is important because it maximizes productivity and protects the company’s considerable investment, Watt says.
Powered by Cummins diesel engines that run virtually nonstop because of the subzero temperatures, the Sno-Cats prove their mettle every day. Leaving the machines running 24 hours a day in temperatures reaching -50 degrees F, the vehicles burn 20 to 40 gallons of fuel per day and have 50-gallon fuel tanks, according to Watt.
“The Sno-Cats are 50 percent faster than other tracked vehicles we’ve used,” he says. “That makes us more efficient. For instance, we have to place recording equipment at least four or five miles away from our mobile camps because they need silence to operate.
“So if a camp is four miles from a recorder, the Sno-Cats get us out in the field to those recorders in 20 to 30 minutes, as opposed to an hour,” he continues. “That saves money and allows our surveyors to work farther away from camp, because they can get there faster. It gives them more time in the field. Plus every vehicle has a GPS, so they can still travel during whiteouts. Before GPS, we had to shut down when the weather got that bad.”
In addition, the vehicle’s four articulated rubber tracks provide more traction and maneuverability and are less likely to break through the snow and tear into the fragile tundra. “You steer by articulation, rather than braking one track to turn, like you do with a two-track vehicle, which can break up the tundra,” Watt says. “It also provides a smoother ride.”
CARRY A LOAD
Sno-Cats seat two to 12 passengers. Sometimes Geokinetics customizes units by removing seats, which makes room for small offices used by surveyors. Some Sno-Cats even carry small fuel tanks for transporting fuel to remote sites, Watt says.
The vehicles operate just like a car or pickup truck, so in emergencies, just about anyone can drive them without training. Each track is independently sprung and pivoted at the drive axle, which minimizes cab shock on rough terrain. Furthermore, the rubber tracks render the Sno-Cats drivable on everything from dry pavement and mud to dirt roads and deep, powdery snow.
“They can go where a lot of vehicles can’t, like on ice,” Watt says. “They can go virtually anywhere … for the niche in which we use them, there’s nothing equal to these machines.”