Let’s push things forward

25 October 2018

There is a history of digital technology being deployed in oilfields, and its the evolution of technology has required the industry to keep pace with the potential efficiencies it brings. As companies move towards a more efficient and more autonomous future, Halliburton’s digital technology leader, César Bravo, discusses what the digital oilfield means today.

The oil and gas industry has become accustomed to disruption in recent years, not only from falling commodity prices, but also from rapid change in the technological landscape. As lower oil prices became the norm, oil producers faced enormous pressure to reduce costs and boost productivity. This came at a time when advances in digital technology became available to help do more with less. The synergy between these two trends led to significant investment in the digital oilfield concept, but the evolution of technology also meant that the definition of this concept has kept changing.

Today, the digital oilfield represents a constant process of innovation and investment in new technologies, at every stage of the value chain. The application of innovative technologies is essential if a company wants to ensure more efficient recovery, so naturally, future profitability depends as much on digital strategy as on any other single factor in the business model.

Times have changed

“The concept of the digital oilfield has been around for 15–20 years, with oil majors starting to integrate data services in the early 2000s to bring together real-time data, well models and daily production data,” says César Bravo, industrial internet of things (IIoT) and digital transformation leader for oil and gas production industry at Halliburton. “Then came automation of work processes, which saw the integration of data and applications. When it started, we had different digital technology – the solutions were APIs that enabled the integration of applications.

“In the past five years, the change has been our ability to create flexible solutions through the cloud, as infrastructure costs have fallen, as well as a lot of progress in the IIoT and instrumentation, so we can manage more variables with more intelligent sensors. Since 2007, when the first iPhone came out and proved to be a game-changer, there have been big breakthroughs in digital technology, which came at the same time as the downturn in the oil and gas business. The industry has been forced to look for more efficiency and lower-cost solutions, which has driven the need to look at digital transformation,” he adds.

Halliburton is perfectly positioned to use its knowledge of the life cycle of the reservoir – from locating hydrocarbons and managing geological data, to drilling and formation evaluation, well construction and completion, and production optimisation – to help bring about a digital revolution. Bravo has more than 18 years of experience in the field of research and development, commercialisation and implementation of digital solutions for the industry, and he is the leading advocate of the company’s Voice of the Oilfield programme, which is helping to bring about a profound transformation in the industry.

A decade of digital evolution

Over the past decade, the industry has attempted to use digital technologies to automate aspects of production. The initial digital oilfield concept was based on relatively simple data integration, enabling the automatic monitoring and analysis of production. However, Bravo believes these efforts were too limited in their scope and that the current trend of digital transformation will have a more profound impact, as it relies on a host of new technologies such as edge analytics – which uses automated algorithms to process data from sensors and other devices – mobile technology, integration platforms and big data analytics.

The paradigm shift that has taken place has affected not only how people access information, but also how many industries view their business model, in the knowledge that it must be sufficiently agile to keep pace with continual change. This flexibility is enabling operators to put in place a smart and connected exploration and production ecosystem to unearth new opportunities, create value from the application of new technologies, and collaborate in an unprecedented way with partners in the industry.

“There are many technologies available and there has been a rapid increase in computing capacity, cloud services and mobile devices, all of which generate terabytes of data every minute. Two technologies that will be very important are the IIoT, which enables us to receive more information, as it is becoming cheaper to get sophisticated sensors, and machine learning, which will allow us to use the data better,” says Bravo.

Untapped potential

Within the huge volume of data that oilfields produce lay invaluable insight, but unearthing it means having a clear idea of what problem you want to solve. Big data is only valuable when it is applied to a specific issue, and in the oil and gas sector that issue is how to better understand the reservoir. There is a high degree of uncertainty in the reservoir management process, as subsurface fluid dynamics are based on simulations, which are built on exploration, drilling and production data.

The first challenge is to accumulate the sufficient data, which is where intelligent instrumentation comes into play. The next is to identify which data is useful and apply sophisticated analytics.

“The main objective is to reduce uncertainty about the dynamics of the reservoir, which is what Landmark, the software business line of Halliburton, focuses on. It looks at how to capture more downhole data and develop better simulations to improve how we manage fluids and how we transport hydrocarbons to the surface,” says Bravo.

The company’s Voice of the Oilfield solution aims to integrate new technologies for data capture, integration and analysis to create an accurate picture of the reservoir. These include IIoT to enhance real-time communication, edge analytics to deploy automated algorithms to process data from sensors, cloud services to deliver the computing capacity and architecture at a reasonable cost, and other solutions to collect and transmit data in real time and run faster simulations.

“IIoT and machine learning are still in their initial phases in the oil and gas industry, but most major companies in this industry have digital transformation programmes, which rely on intelligent sensors downhole and the application of machine learning and big data to process information. Big data and analytics are not valuable per se: they must be used to face specific challenges. However, the availability and quality of data is key to having more efficient infrastructure,” notes Bravo.

“Also, in this industry, there is not only seismic data, well models and production data, but also a lot of information on many other factors such as finance and maintenance. To get a holistic view of the elements that affect a business, you have to look at all of these. Before, we only looked at one dimension of the business, but now we have to look at much more than production data. This is an area where real advances are being made. The industry is starting to look beyond production to put in place a much broader digital transformation programme,” he adds.

Keeping pace with progress

The oil and gas industry has not always been a fast mover when it comes to adopting cutting-edge technology. Instead, it has often waited for other industries to prove the value and maturity of new solutions. When it comes to digital transformation, there may be a pressing need for greater efficiency, but the industry is still not an early adopter.

“Now, operators can not only get more information from intelligent sensors, but also get more meaningful information, and we are in the process of integrating big data and machine learning, so that we can close the loop and provide a level of autonomy in operations. The challenge is that we have to keep up with the pace of change and absorb all of the available technology into oil and gas processes, but the industry is not always a leader in technology development. It is a very traditional industry in many ways, so it has to get the benefits of technology created for other industries,” says Bravo.

Other industry sectors have already made great progress with IIoT, for example, which seamlessly integrates a large number of devices to feed real-time data from sensors and actuators installed in wells. These devices can connect automatically to a network, perform their own data cleansing and pre-processing activities, and generate diagnostic data about their performance. This functionality has already had a major impact in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and telecommunications.

Similarly, edge analytics enables real-time data analysis and control applications, using algorithms to monitor and assess a host of variables, including pump failure pattern recognition and chemical injection management. On this, it is possible to build in some automated responses to specific cues and, ultimately, give operations a degree of autonomy through self-monitoring, selfcontrol and self-healing processes.

Foreseeable developments

In the future, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, drones and other technologies could also come to the fore – in fact, AI is already finding its place.

“IIoT will be a fundamental part of the oil and gas business, and instrumentation technology is becoming cheaper. We have new downhole sensor technology and some very interesting developments around fibre, but we can also measure new things such as video feeds. We have not used this much before, but now we have more intelligent cameras that can recognise patterns and we have better ways to transfer video across our networks, so telepresence is very common. We can visualise a field and analyse leaks and emissions and process that data in the field,” remarks Bravo.

“The next big digital technology, however, will be AI. It is the future of business, in any industry, because it allows the automation of repetitive and hazardous tasks, and a better understanding of the business process. Autonomous operations at the well mean fewer people are exposed to hazardous environments. AI is creating new business models in transport, entertainment and many more industries, and the oil and gas sector is no different. In only two or three years, we will see significant development in autonomous operations, as well as getting better well simulations and better field development planning. AI already has a good level of maturity, so the level of autonomy in the industry is rising fast.”

The knowledge and skills to develop and implement digital technology are essential, but so is a shift in attitude. If the industry is to innovate, it must learn a new way of collaborating and sharing best practice.

“At Halliburton, we have a dedicated business line that develops new technology to add value for our customers, and we help to automate drilling by putting in place intelligent systems and we ensure we attract the right talent,“ concludes Bravo.

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