Shell’s smart move with wireless technology

28 August 2013

Though the digital oilfield concept has existed since the early 2000s, fully integrated smart equipment has yet to make its way into the hands of many field workers. Arjen Dorland speaks to Jack Wittels about Shell’s latest innovation that seeks to redress this balance, using wireless technology to empower the company’s mobile engineers.

At a remote Shell production site in Oman, a mobile worker has discovered a corroded pipeline. The damage is significant and requires immediate attention, though it is not clear precisely what has caused the problem, or how best to proceed. Before making the repair, the worker wants to access the pipeline's operating history and look at its construction drawings. He would also like to obtain a second opinion.

Standard practice would dictate that the worker drive back to head office, where he could access the company database and discuss the situation with another professional.

However, this particular worker is part of Shell's Smart Mobile Worker (SMW) technology project. Rather than heading back to his vehicle, he pulls a tablet device from his pocket, wirelessly accesses Shell's database and downloads the required information. The worker then approaches the pipeline, turning on his helmet's camera and voice-integration system as he goes, connecting with field experts in head office who can now see and hear along with him. Together, they analyse the situation, decide on a solution, then the mobile worker drives to the nearest spare part supplier, which he uses his tablet to locate.

The tablet and voice-and-camera-integrated helmet, along with a host of other devices, all fall under the umbrella of Shell's SMW technology. Currently being tested in Oman, Iraq and the Netherlands, the technology is expected to significantly enhance the productivity and efficiency of the firm's mobile engineers. Though yet to finalise the design specification, Shell has described the innovation as "full end-to-end connectivity and service availability that connects to anywhere in Shell. It required the solution integration of hardware, software, infrastructure, architecture, IT-security and video-conferencing systems."

In practice, SMW technology is the wireless integration of Shell's devices and communication between its personnel. Information from everything a well-equipped worker carries - GPS tracker, helmet with camera and voice integration, temperature-monitoring device and a range of other tools - is accessible to office-based employees working online. Reports from independent machine-monitoring devices also flow automatically into the company's databases.

Crucially, the process works in reverse as well: remote workers can access Shell's electronically stored information, including work orders, manuals, histories, construction drawings, device diagnostics, operational procedures and captured data. It is also possible to operate loop checks or valve stroke tests through the remote and direct manipulation of live systems, should the need arise.

Driving innovation

But while all this may sound impressive, the innovative aspect of SMW technology lies not in the individual components - none of which are new to the market - but in the way Shell has used wireless technology to bring them all together. The project dates back to 2009, when the company carved out and ring-fenced a separate hybrid unit comprised of business, IT, science and technology staff.

"The aim was to drive IT lead innovation in our subservers, workers' belts and operations," says Arjen Dorland, executive vice-president of technical and competitive IT at Shell. "We wanted to increase worker efficiency, and at the same time improve safety standards and minimise exposure time to environmental health hazards ... We already have smart wells, smart manufacturing and all sorts of machine-monitoring devices. It made sense to smarten up our workers as well."

Though the advantages of digital communication between remote rigs and offices have long been known, logistical challenges have often prevented it. In Oman's oilfields, operators initially planned to connect the 28,000-square-mile area using an enormous network of fibre-optic cables, but the scheme was abandoned as a result of long installation times and the high cost of entrenchment. Wireless solutions have also previously proven problematic; cooling towers and other large structures commonly found at production and refinery sites can hinder signal transmission, and extreme weather conditions and debris often wreak havoc on device communication.

"Workers can operate far more efficiently, and it also gives them a strong sense of empowerment."

In Oman, however, Redline Communications has now successfully provided wireless connectivity between rigs and offices for Shell and the part-state-owned Petroleum Development Oman. This advancement brings hope that wireless integration will soon become more common across large oilfields, potentially bringing massive benefits for workers around the world.

"Take the Eagle Ford shale operations in South Texas [an area roughly the size of West Virginia] as an example of where SMW technology could be used," says Dorland. "Workers out there sometimes have to drive for hours to reach their destination. If they find an issue once they arrive at the scene, the only thing to do is go back to the office and try to sort it out. But with SMW, they'll have direct access to expert advice and online information.

"Consequently, workers are more likely to find a solution while on site. Or, at the very least, they'll be able to carry out an accurate diagnosis and advise on whether operations need to be modified. They can operate far more efficiently, and it also gives them a strong sense of empowerment."

SMW technology has the added advantage of tracking workers' movements, allowing head offices to better organise personnel across large sites like Eagle Ford, and making it easier to ensure everyone is safe prior to any work-related explosions.

The industry adapts

There is, however, one potentially significant drawback to the immediate implementation of Shell's new product: the mixture of sour faces and - more worringly - technological incompetency with which the industry's aging workforce often greets new technology.

"It would be unfair and stereotypical to say the older generation all have issues with new technology; there are many who love it," says Dorland. "But it is true that, if people are used to smart devices in their private lives, they find it far easier adapting to SMW, and that does tend to be the younger generation."

"It would be unfair and stereotypical to say the older generation all have issues with new technology; there are many who love it."

Like it or not, however, the reality is that older workers across the oil and gas sector are having to adapt to digital technology. Chevron has already introduced a handheld software device for field workers that automatically tracks asset data. More broadly, the digital oilfield revolution is gaining traction across the industry; its revenues have steadily risen in recent years, and will no doubt continue to do so, aided by the burgeoning Middle Eastern market looking to follow in the footsteps of its Western European and North American counterparts. Oil executives are also increasingly keen to embrace digital products, hoping that a more technology-friendly image will help attract a much-needed new generation of young workers.

Dorland has said that Shell will wait for further feedback before rolling SMW technology out on a broader scale, though the company does have explicit plans to introduce it on the $12 billion Prelude project: a vast floating LNG plant that will be permanently situated off Australia's north-west shelf, and will claim the title of the world's largest vessel when completed in 2015.

"The SMW technology will be used on the Prelude to ensure workers have good access to technical advice - it certainly won't be easy to bring specialist people out there," Dorland comments.

It has also been suggested that Shell will use SMW technology to optimise worker performance in more challenging environments, including the Arctic. Though currently barred from production in the region following the New Year's Eve grounding of a drilling rig, the firm has invested years and $4.5 billion in securing permits, and will no doubt soon make another excavation attempt.

"I think the Arctic will be one of the areas, if we do have operations there, that need regular maintenance and inspection. So no doubt we will use SMW technology," says Dorland. "What's important to remember, when thinking about the future of this product, is that not every worker needs such equipment; it will mostly be used in specific areas, such as Eagle Ford, where operators are in short supply and efficiency has to be optimised."

Over time, Dorland expects SMW technology to evolve from an amalgamation of tools into a single device, mentioning that a number of suppliers have already shown interest in working on such a product. While exciting, however, such advancements are still a long way off. For the moment, Shell will continue to monitor and develop this promising new technology.

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