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Five clever digital technologies for oil and gas

Digital technology is advancing at a great pace, but which technologies could have an outsized impact on the oil and gas sector, particularly the high cost oil sands projects? Canada is a technologically advanced nation, and we’re facing some pretty tough challenges at the moment – all the right conditions for technology adoption.

 

Here’s my thoughts on five clever technologies with a place in the future of the industry.

 

Ready, Aim, Aim

 

If there’s one criticism of technology advocates, me included, it’s that technology tends to go looking for a problem to solve. Why not start with the problems of the industry and work backwards to identify the most interesting technologies?

 

 

Vast distances

 

 

The one truly staggering feature of unconventional oil and gas fieldsis the immense size of the resources. For example, the cumulative land area of the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River oil sands field is 140,000 square kilometers (about the size of England). Imagine building a road network, oil and gas wells, flow lines, telecoms, and a power grid across a small country. Now try to grow constantly for a decade, and maintain the accumulating immensity of it at hopefully a declining cost. What technologies can impact this tremendous cost and logistics problem?

 

 

Out of the field, off the road

 

 

When oil and gas prices were high, we could make good coin even with our high cost people. Now, not so much. Unconventional resource plays need to spend a huge amount of time and money moving expensive people and equipment around, sometimes to the distress of local communities. Getting people off the roads and out of the fields as much as possible, substituting technology for people, is key. What technologies can replace some of the work of people (building stuff, delivering things, providing services, repairing and maintaining kit), or can move that work to a place where people are more conveniently located?

 

 

Flexible workforces

 

 

The skill level required to maintain oil and gas wells, pumping equipment, processing plants, pipelines and facilities is demanding. Over time engineers will simplify the oil and gas kit to make it easier to work with, but in the meantime, augmenting workforce skills and helping them stay locally resident will really help. What technologies can help someone unfamiliar with a task or asset be quickly and safely competent?

 

 

5 technologies worth watching

 

 

Here are five technologies that can help with these key challenges of distance, logistics, complexity, people shortages, and demanding skillsets.

 

 

Autonomy

 

 

Robotic cars are already proving to be much safer than human drivers, more reliable, with lower operating costs.

 

 

But imagine the positive impact of driverless technology on the logistics problem and costs of building out oil and gas infrastructure. Building a well requires dozens of trips by light and heavy duty trucks to the drill site to inspect, plan and execute the work. Same thing for well work overs, repairs and maintenance, and plug and abandonment.

 

 

Another autonomous vehicle with great promise is of the aerial variety. Drones can fly at night so as not to spook the neighbours, inspect oil and gas fields far more efficiently than a man in a van, map out flow lines and routes, measure up the contours, look for rogue emissions, check vegetation growth, even penetrate soil depth to see what might lie beneath. Drones have already proven their value in emergency settings, going where no human can go (fire settings, radioactive sites, flooded areas).

 

 

Drones are being pressed into service as delivery systems, which could be quite valuable for moving urgently needed repair items quickly to hard to access sites.

 

 

At least one company in Calgary is developing a fully autonomous drill rig. Autonomous equipment is the way of the future.

 

 

Additivity

 

 

An entrepreneur came to me recently with an innovative technology. He had designed a machine that can manufacture pipe from advanced materials. This innovation could eliminate the need to ship manufactured polyethylene pipe from a factory somewhere in Asia to well sites in Canada, the US and Australia. Queensland will eventually drill at least 30,000 wells which will need up to 30,000 km of flow lines, which is thousands of truck loads of pipe, not to mention acres of lay down yards. Additive manufacturing could reduce this to shipping the machine and the required raw materials.

 

 

3D printing could print replacement parts, such as gaskets and seals, or broken pipe joints. Eventually, printing larger repair items will be feasible. Aircraft makers are already printing up some of the more challenging pieces of jet engines, so surely some of the parts in downhole pumps or drilling equipment will be printable.

 

 

The costs of additive manufacturing are tumbling to a point where the printers will be super affordable and easy to use, so they can be deployed anywhere.

 

 

Visibility

 

 

The internet of things is about making things visible on the internet. Anyone who has set up a home computer network lately gets just how easy this is these days. We’re enthusiastically connecting up all our toys to the net (cameras, printers, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, stereo kit, TVs, appliances).

 

 

The oil and gas industry is already expert at making its kit visible. Pumps, well heads, pipelines and other field assets all wire into central control rooms so technicians can monitor what’s going on from one spot.

 

 

But as technology costs come down, anything can become an addressable thing on the internet. All it needs is a power supply (cheap batteries or solar cell), an aerial, a chip for processing, a radio for transmitting and receiving, maybe a screen for local interaction. Now that the big stuff in oil and gas is on the net, it’s time for the small stuff.

 

 

The first use will be just to find stuff. The tool sheds and cribs, laydown yards and warehouses holding parts are so huge that finding things is difficult. Lots of company owned stuff goes walk about and needs to be replaced. Petty pilferage will disappear when the anti-theft features of mobile phones comes to portable generators.

 

 

The economics can be compelling. I helped a vehicle operator in Fort McMurray install these devices in their vehicles and it eliminated the need for 4 people whose jobs were to walk around and find misplaced vehicles.

 

 

Imagine a day when every useful thing broadcasts its current condition state, malfunctioning parts, availability, available capacity, quality measures, and is controllable from anywhere by anyone with authorisation.

 

 

Wearability

 

 

Wearables are here, as watches, heart monitors, and Fitbits. Throw in an app store, developer kits, and the ability to integrate corporate systems, and we have the makings for a new range of productivity aids for the workforce.

 

 

Wearables are information delivery systems. Even the first generations of this kit are useful for dispatching instructions, short messages, maps and drawings, voice communications, training. Virtually anything that can be digitisedcould be sent to a wearable device.

 

 

The first applications will be on safety to help keep track of people in the field and among equipment, but soon workers using technology-equipped headgear or eyewear will be able to provide fully two way communications to anyone anywhere. Imagine a field worker confronting an unfamiliar piece of kit being able to call up diagrams, instructions, real time peer coaching, video chat with an expert. No more having to dispatch scarce engineering talent 400km to deal with a reluctant pump. The junior guy can handle it.

 

 

 

Share-ability

 

 

Have you noticed the rise of the sharing economy? Using digital tools, maps, mobile devices, ubiquitous networks, search engines and global markets, asset owners with underutilised assets are making them available for short term rental. The best examples are Uber and airBnB (uber is disrupting the taxi trade, and airBnB is taking a slice of the hotel market). Sure, sometimes the experience could be better, but in general, these services are growing because they fill a need.

 

 

The oil and gas industry could be a big beneficiary of the sharing economy. There are plenty of assets that command high day rates and feature spotty utilisation. Pockets of shortages and over supply crop up regularly. Rigs, frack spreads, yellow goods, trailers, pumping units, and other specialised kit are effectively contracted using the same two models invented by Moses: sign up a long contract, or haggle in the telephone bazaar for immediate use.

 

 

Imagine the potential if an industry buyer could gain immediate visibility to available equipment for prompt use. Work in the industry could be more fully optimisedwith benefits for both asset owners (higher utilisation) and customers (higher availability and shorter downtimes on their assets).

 

 

The mining industry has already moved in that direction with a service that rents out underused mining goods.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s loads of other rapidly advancing technologies out there. Digital technology. Self repairing equipment. Advanced materials. Nano technology. Bio-engineering. Smart drilling. Water filtration. Water-less fraccing. Which ones are you watching with interest, and why?

 

 

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