The Oil & Gas Industry in the Information Age

Excerpts from “Upgrading The Industry In The Information Age”

(E&P Hart Energy) – For at least the first couple of thousands of years, astronomy was essentially an observational science. Using only simple tools and the naked eye, early astronomers tried to gain a better understanding of the stars and planets. Some of it was accurate, and some of it was not—despite Copernicus’ insistence that the sun was the center of the universe. It wasn’t until the 17th century with the invention of the telescope that astronomy began to transition to a theoretical—or quantitative—science, one which leverages the development of computer or analytical models to describe objects and phenomena.

Schlumberger uses VR systems to train employees who are new to the oil and gas industry.

(Source: Schlumberger)


The oil and gas industry has undergone a similar, albeit more condensed, transformation. The tools used to produce hydrocarbons have come a long way in 200 or so years, and today the industry sits on the brink of its own quantitative revolution. Many of the tools of the modern oil man and woman would be nearly unrecognizable by those drilling the first wells in the late 19th century. Indeed, aerial drones, holographic lenses, robots and devices that dramatically alter the view of the universe are no longer the tools of tomorrow. They are in use today, and their applications are rapidly emerging across a wide array of industry operations. Tech-savvy businesses and digital flexibility are no longer limited to Silicon Valley as oil and gas companies become more innovative, efficient, and nimble in their operations.


A field technician reviews footage from a drone inspection at a BP offshore unit. (Source: BP)


Drones and robotics

In a recent report issued by IHS Markit, the use of aerial drones was identified as one of several “transformative technologies” likely to emerge in the industry this year. Another report by research firm Mordor Intelligence stated that the market for drones in the oil and gas industry is projected to reach $4 billion by 2020. The Mordor report also stated that drones have the ability to collect “as much data available in the last 30 years within 45 minutes” and are “poised to become the next major disruption to influence the oil and gas industry.” In fact, according to a report by Technavio, oil and gas is the leading end-user of drone and robotics, with a 58.5% share of the market.

Trumbull Unmanned provides drone operations to companies in the oil and gas sector such as BP and was named Exxon Mobil diverse supplier of the year. The company has performed more than 100 live flare inspections both onshore and offshore, which CEO Dyan Gibbens said is about one-tenth the price and one-tenth the time of traditional flare inspections. She also said the savings vary from client to client, but if a typical inspection were to take a week, for example, a drone inspection can be done in less than a day and oftentimes less than an hour.

A team of technicians discuss a drone inspection operation at a BP offshore unit. (Source: BP)


“Drone services provide several unique benefits to the oil and gas industry,” Gibbens said. “First, they allow companies to greatly reduce risk and start allowing individuals to perform important work while never having to put themselves in harm’s way. Second, in order to start effectively applying productivity increasing algorithms to work, the data need to be collected in a structured format.” Gibbens said drones offer the ability to collect large amounts of data in those needed formats. Operational improvements often can be seen in three primary areas—efficiency, safety and quality, she said. “For example, many operators have integrated drones into their offshore inspection activities,” she added. “They have done this because it has greatly reduced the costs of inspections with no reduction in production, allows dangerous work to be performed with no risk to people and has the ability to collect high-resolution data that was not previously possible.”

Intel and Cyberhawk, an aerial drone inspection company, recently partnered on a flare stack inspection in Saint Fergus, Scotland, using the Falcon 8+ drone system. According to Intel, such an inspection conducted by a drone can save $1 million to $5 million per day in potential production losses. “Traditional inspections of oil and gas assets of this scale require either full or partial facility shutdowns,” Intel reported in a case study of the operation. “This could take days to weeks to bring the plant offline and accessible for inspection workers.” According to the study, the Falcon 8+ deployed for the mission captured 1,100 images in 10 flights, which translated to 12 GB of data over the span of one to two days. A similar inspection would typically take a three-man team three days to complete, the study reported.

Much like unmanned drones, robots are accessing both physical spaces and data that humans previously could not or where it was dangerous for them to do so. In the early 2010s, Total recognized that no existing autonomous surface robot existed in the oil and gas industry to meet the needs of E&P activities. In December 2013 Total, in partnership with the French National Research Agency, launched an international competition to design and build an autonomous robot for oil and gas sites. The ARGOS Challenge included five teams from Austria and Germany, Spain and Portugal, France, Japan and Switzerland. Each team was given about $740,000 and three years to design their surface robot prototypes. According to Total, the ARGOS surface robot was to have three main missions: to carry out inspections currently performed by humans, detect anomalous situations and intervene in an emergency. More specific tasks included performing inspections during the day or night; being able to locate, read and record inspection points; take measurement and analyze readings; and detect anomalies ranging from malfunctions to dangerous situations such as gas leaks, suspicious heat sources or excess pressure, Total reported.

A team of engineers from Austria and Germany recently developed this robot, which won Total’s ARGOS competition and will be piloted at a Total facility in the near future. (Source: Laurent Pascal, Total)


According to Total, the five robot prototypes were tested in a former gas dehydration facility in southwestern France in conditions representative of other company facilities. The final iteration of the competition was held in March 2017, and the prototype from the Austrian-German team was selected as the winner and was chosen by Total to start operating on one of its facilities beginning in 2020, the company reported.

In December Total successfully trialed an aerial drone system, its Multiphysics Exploration Technology Integrated System (METIS), for geophysical imaging. The goal of the METIS project, according to the company, is to obtain quality geophysical data in complex topographical locations, minimize environmental and safety risks, and improve turnaround time and costs. The drone system uses Downfall Air Receiver Technology (DART) to “carpet” the ground in the exploration area with DART wireless geophysical sensors, Total reported. The drone fleet can deploy up to 400 DART receivers per square kilometer, with seismic traces recorded and sent in real time to a processing center, the company reported.

Total successfully tested its METIS seismic acquisition drone, which is designed to acquire seismic data in challenging topographies. (Source: Ramlo Productions)



Technological innovations in the oil and gas industry are breaking down the limitations of space and time. Data-gathering is achieved much more rapidly and in quantities that never before seemed possible. AR and VR innovations are allowing industry workers to virtually be in two places at the same time and can drastically alter the visual perception of their workspaces.

For example, operators and service companies are finding AR is an ideal tool for training simulations and troubleshooting mechanical problems in the field. Honeywell recently released a cloud-based simulation tool that uses a combination of AR and VR to train plant personnel on critical industrial work activities. “With as much as 50% of industrial plant personnel due to retire within the next five years, the Honeywell Connected Plant Skills Immersive Competency is designed to bring new industrial workers up to speed quickly by enhancing training and delivering it in new and contemporary ways,” the company stated in a press release. The training tool combines mixed reality with data analytics and Honeywell’s experience in worker competency management to create an interactive environment for on-the-job training. The program uses Microsoft’s HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality headsets to simulate various scenarios. “Megatrends, such as the aging workforce, are putting increased pressure on industrial companies and their training programs,” Youssef Mestari, program director for Honeywell Connected Plant, said in the release. “There is a need for more creative and effective training delivered through contemporary methods such as immersive competency, ultimately empowering industrial workers to directly improve plant performance, uptime, reliability and safety.”

However, for oil and gas companies to fully leverage the benefits of AR and VR, enough data—and enough of the right kind of data— must be in place. For instance, companies are just beginning to leverage digital twins of their assets. According to Baker Hughes, a GE company (BHGE), a digital twin is a digital representation of physical parts, assets, processes or systems. Digital twins continuously collect data from sensors on the assets and apply analytics and self-learning AI to gain insights about its performance and operation, BHGE stated. As part of its partnership with Microsoft, Halliburton has implemented AR and VR capabilities for training and field operations and has incorporated these innovations into its DecisionSpace enterprise platform. Halliburton’s Yeleshwarapu said the effect is the ability of the worker to interact with a digital twin of a reservoir or of a wellhead, for example. “We have the platform and the unique ability to create an oil and gas digital twin,” Yeleshwarapu said. “Microsoft has the ability to provide the capability around AR and VR tools. You put that together with DecisionSpace Well Construction or DecisionSpace Production and you end up with an immersive way to interact with and understand the industry’s only true oil and gas digital twin.”

Schlumberger has implemented VR training systems for onboarding new employees who have no experience in the field and, more specifically, for its cementing downhole tool systems. Steve Uren, head of simulation at Schlumberger, said, “The training for the cementing downhole tool systems evolved from what was primarily a traditional classroom environment into a VR simulation of the actual working environment of the system. “We redesigned the entire program with some prework requirements. Once the employees arrive at the learning center, they engage in daily activities in the VR environment,” he said. “We basically removed all of the traditional classroom activities.”


The upgradable workforce

The leading case for many technological innovations in the oil and gas industry has been improvements in safety and efficiencies. Another component to the suite of advances, such as drones, robotics and AR/VR, are wearable technologies—physical devices worn by industry workers that augment their environments, monitor their functions and even track their movements.

BP has applied a variety of wearable technologies in its operations, particularly tagging devices that track employees for safety and to optimize worker performance. BP Technology Principal Blaine Tookey said such devices have been met with an overwhelmingly positive response where they have been implemented. “We’re moving into scale deployments in some facilities where [managers] are saying ‘This can really make a difference to our operations,’” Tookey said. “This is really impactful for their emergency and safety performance. But also they can see the value added in day-to-day operations around understanding how people move and how we can support them better.” He said companies typically rely on a worker to communicate physical or environmental problems they may be experiencing while on the job, which is a challenge wearable tracking devices potentially solve. “We’re leaving it up to them to report that they have an issue,” Tookey said. “People might be getting fatigued or they might be getting dehydrated, but now we’ve got the capabilities through wearables to monitor those key parameters and understand in advance whether their performance might be dropping off and call them up and tell them to take a break, tell them to get some water and even intervene in more problematic issues.”

As wearable devices become more commonplace and accepted in the industry, they could become a part of a worker’s usual personal protective equipment that all field or facility workers take out with them, Tookey said. “This opens up brand new opportunities—particularly in biometrics and streaming video, neither of which people don’t commonly use in a facility or as a wearable at the moment,” he said. “We’re also looking at exoskeletons, which are basically structures that you strap to yourself allowing for better endurance, safer lifting, safer holding and longer carrying.”


Brian Walzel is an Associate Editor at E&P Hart Energy.

This article first appeared here in the April 2018 edition of HartEnergy’s E&P magazine; excerpts from the original article are reprinted with permission.



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