Reality check – augmented technology in the field

11 December 2016

Augmented reality will form an increasingly important part of the digital ecosystem over the next few years, but how is it being adapted to suit the offshore environment? Maersk Oil’s head of corporate technology and projects, Troels Albrechtsen, explains how the technology is to be integrated into the company’s Culzean gas project in the UK North Sea.

The sustained dip in oil prices is creating an interesting push-pull dynamic in big data’s relationship with the oil and gas industry. On one hand, shrinking profit margins and an increased emphasis on production efficiency has made operators in many fields reluctant to invest in smart new technology and analytics. On the other, digital, data-driven tools are making everything – from remote communication to predictive maintenance – significantly more efficient, while maintaining rigorous safety standards.

New projects are usually ideal opportunities to invest in new technology, and Maersk Oil is taking the digital plunge with a $4.5-billion gas condensate field in the North Sea, which it is developing with its partners JX Nippon and BP (Britoil).

Culzean, which is expected to start production in 2019, has been designed as a digitised flagship and will feature augmented reality (AR). This will enable offshore platform workers to receive real-time information on equipment via tablets, or Google Glass-type devices, and onshore support staff to guide repairs and maintenance based on live video feeds.

The firm’s head of corporate technology and projects, Troels Albrechtsen, believes AR will be a powerful component of next-generation digital systems in the offshore oil and gas sector.

The oil and gas industry is known to take a relatively conservative attitude towards new technology. Do you think the industry has been slow to investigate AR’s potential?

Troels Albrechtsen: I don’t think so. There’s a lot of risk in an industry like ours. You just don’t have the option of things breaking down and failing, so technology must be proven if you’re sending it 250km out to sea. You have very little chance to do anything twice, because of the loss caused by any downtime at a production facility. Technology must work, and be reliable. I think that’s the reason for any underlying conservatism in the industry.

It’s all about planning. Maersk Oil sees opportunities for things like augmented reality, particularly with new projects, where they can be introduced into the design. The company can design, plan and implement, and also train its people in ways of working that are commensurate with the technology being deployed.

The management of change therefore brings much less risk, because it can be planned and trained for it, whereas when it’s done on an existing facility, it’s a little harder. Maersk Oil envisages using the experience gained on the Culzean field to re-engineer its asset base. It’s a great opportunity.

When did Maersk Oil start looking into possible AR applications for offshore oil and gas facilities?

It has been looking at AR for quite a while. In the onshore space, for example, it has investigated simulation model output – walking in augmented reality through models – in some centres. But in terms of bringing it offshore, Maersk Oil has really waited to have the right project to do the test on. Culzean is the type of project for which the company can afford, and benefit from, AR.

There are three key objectives. The first is to create inherently safer installations and operations, and AR will do that. The second is to increase efficiency, enabling Maersk Oil to be able afford to produce these fields for longer, and sustain production, way into the future.

The third, which is a little bit less tangible, but no less important, is to prepare for a long future in which the people working for Maersk Oil will have Pokémon Go as a natural part of their lives.

The next generation will be so used to having information and expertise at their fingertips, and being able to supply them in the offshore environment with exactly that is part of what will make the company successful. It’s also about bridging what is typically called the ‘big generation shift’, or ‘big crew change’. You can’t expect to have people with 30 years’ experience everywhere – they will retire, and this must be compensated for, and I think AR enables this to be done very carefully.

How will the Culzean project incorporate AR?

It will be installed with tags around the platform, and fully wired with fibre optic cables, creating a fully digitised platform, and preparing for growth in the digital space.

This infrastructure will enable a front-line worker to approach a piece of equipment, and immediately have available to him all the [data] and drawings that are relevant to it. He’ll know how it should operate; he will have its records available to him just by being where he is on the site.

Then, if he sees a problem or anomaly, he’ll be able to call up experts in an onshore support facility. They can be in his ear, seeing a live video stream of what he sees, and provide him with live feedback on how to best tackle the issue.

This infrastructure will enable a front-line worker to approach a piece of equipment, and immediately have available to him all the [data] and drawings that are relevant to it.

If that is not enough, they can call up an industry expert sitting in, say, Houston, who will be able to come in at a moment’s notice to take part in managing a situation or inspection.

Of the all the ways in which AR data can be displayed, which devices have you found to have the most potential to be used in the offshore environment?

The issue is around field-proofing, and, of course, it has to work every time, and must be explosion-proof, so it doesn’t interfere with operations. I think tablet devices, at this point in time, have the least risk associated with them. We know that they work.

I think we’ve only seen the beginning; there will be an evolution, and Maersk Oil needs to make sure that it is also ready for the Google Glass-type approach. Of course, there are practical issues (battery life and so on) to consider.

What effects might integrating remote monitoring and AR have on offshore maintenance and production efficiency?

I think we should be really careful not to promise the world with this technology on its own: there will be limits to the ways in which it can be used. What it will do is enable errors to be detected earlier.

It will be easier to get the right types of interventions done, because experts can be brought into the field much more easily. I think the quality of maintenance will be higher this way.

Can the potential efficiency gains brought by AR offset the cost of implementation when oil prices are low?

For new projects, I think so. For retrofitting into existing installations, the remaining lifetime of the facility will be what decides whether those investments can be made.

If you can make good use of this over a five or ten-year period, it makes a lot of sense. The number of helicopter trips you could save from people going offshore, for example, is a tangible, bankable saving.

Of course, you need some time to be able to do that, so in that way, the price of oil and gas has a pretty direct impact, because it affects the timing of cessation of production for many fields.

Looking further ahead, what are the more radical and complex applications of AR to the oil and gas industry?

You’re asking me to look around corners. I don’t know, but there’s one particular area I would like to mention. For training of staff, instead of sending them for training on the facilities themselves, you would train them with AR equipment, using models of the plants in which you want them to operate. They can do that on their own or as part of a team.

That will, again, increase safety and efficiency. It’s impossible to say where the technology can go from here. Maersk Oil is looking towards enabling its platforms to make sure it can capture the waves of technology development as they arrive.

That’s the important part. It’s impossible to imagine what’s going to happen – I think it’s going to be beyond our wildest dreams.  

AR technology is on the cusp of training the way oil and gas staff are trained and deployed.
Augmented reality will be able to provide an engineer with all the requisite information about a piece of hardware, as well as instant feedback and guidance from off-site experts.
The next generation of oil and gas industry workers will grow up with technology like AR as an ingrained part of their lives, easing the transition to the new digital landscape.
AR technology is in its infancy, and has boundless potential.

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