Oil and gas is among the more accident-prone industries. Compared with, say, banking, the likelihood of someone getting hurt on the job in oil is immeasurably higher. But just as information technology has changed the landscape in banking, it is changing the landscape in oil and gas, too, and it is making it a lot safer.
There’s a growing body of evidence that digitalization is driving a radical transformation in how oil and gas are discovered and extracted – and traded, as well – and safety seems to be an integral part of this transformation. Here’s what technology has been doing to reduce the physical risks associated with work in the oil field while at the same time boosting productivity and reducing costs.
There are tons of data being generated on a daily basis at any oil or gas field. Flow rates, equipment maintenance, anything out of the ordinary – these are but a handful of examples. Until recently, this data was practically wasted. But now, thanks to digital tech, it is being gathered, processed and analyzed.
The result: the risk of equipment malfunctioning, which can often lead to injury, can be minimized by what tech firms working with the oil and gas industry call predictive maintenance. This basically means fixing the problem before it occurs thanks to the data gathered by connected equipment.
Predictive maintenance was made possible by sensors in the equipment connected to computers that keep track of things such as temperature, humidity and, in offshore oil and gas, wave heights and other relevant indicators that can affect the performance of various pieces of equipment. Based on this information, whoever is in charge of maintenance can “detect equipment breakdown before it occurs” as one IT industry executive put it. This, in turn, helps avoid accidents related to these equipment breakdowns.
Drones have been nothing short of a blessing for the oil and gas industry. Just think about it: many fields are in remote locations, some of them in challenging environments, and there are also thousands of miles of pipelines. Site inspections could take days, perhaps even weeks, in pre-digital times. Now, all it takes is a drone. Related: US Energy Secretary: The Shale Boom Is Far From Over
Drones can provide a 360-degree view of an oil field or a pipeline. Equipped with special sensors, they can detect a leak with a precision level that would take a human crew much longer. They can also detect methane leaks using their sensors, which is a surveillance and monitoring area that is garnering growing attention from the media and regulators.
Finally, in the event of a spill or fire, drones can act as first responders, providing images of the location where the event is occurring and helping the human responders organize their response. Ultimately, this reduces the safety risks associated with such emergency events.
If battery storage is the Holy Grail of renewable energy, automation seems to be the Holy Grail of oil and gas. Everything that can be automated is being automated in the oil field, from oilfield and pipeline monitoring to drilling.
To monitor fields and pipelines, companies use drones on shore and autonomous underwater vehicles for offshore pipelines. In oil and gas well drilling, E&Ps are using sensors in the drilling equipment to boost the accuracy of drilling. This higher accuracy also cuts drilling times and improves safety as it makes drilling much more predictable.
It is still early days for automation in oil and gas. Despite the above applications, most of the automated processes in the industry have to do with supply chain tracking, workforce deployment, and equipment-related processes. Yet earlier this year, Baker Hughes announced an automated fracking system that has brought us closer to the automated oil field. The system, dubbed Prodigi, says where the best locations are to frack a well, which boosts production rates.
It was only a matter of time before the oil and gas industry welcomed the benefits of wearable tech with open arms. Smart helmets, smart glasses, and sensor-rich clothing are among the examples of how this tech is helping to make the oil and gas industry a safer place. Related: Iraq’s 550,000 Bpd Oil Deal Is In Jeopardy
There are wearables capable of detecting gas leaks, for example, and signaling the detection to warn the worker. There are wearables that monitor the wearer’s heart rate, hydration levels and pretty literally how they are feeling, even whether they are tired or not.
Italy’s Eni is making strides in the area of wearable health sensors, in partnership with the MIT. Shell, for its part, has developed a smart helmet or rather a wearable computer system that facilitates the communication between workers in the field and those in the office. Marathon Petroleum has deployed a wearable gas detection system for its refineries.
AI to rule them all
Artificial intelligence is the unifying element across all these digital technology applications. As in other industries, AI is what companies are looking forward to as the solution to numerous challenges, from data analysis to safety. AI takes automation to a whole new level. With it, the automated process can, theoretically at least, keep improving without human input.
This is why AI is the motif that runs through all digital technology deployed at the oil field or in the office onshore. While algorithm-based systems are often—wrongly—called AI, they are a step on the way to true AI, the systems that can learn and improve on their own, further enhancing all the benefits that current technology is already giving oil and gas, making the industry a lot safer for those who will still be working in it in decades to come despite the rise of the robots.
By Charles Kennedy
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