Scott Davidson, managing director at ISN Solutions, a UK-leading IT services and solutions company with decades of experience in partnering companies in the oil and gas sector, explores how the downstream market can take advantage of three innovative technologies to adapt to a new, volatile, and increasingly eco-conscious landscape in the wake of the COVID-19 global health crisis.
The oil and gas industry is not immune to challenges. As we move through an energy transition with greater emphasis on environmental sustainability and decarbonisation, coupled with unstable crude oil prices, growth and demand for renewable energy has topped the agenda.
The growth of electric vehicles (EVs) has impacted demand for petroleum and chemical products, exacerbated further by incentives such as the UK Government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme, while the industry is also facing a potential skills shortage with the next generation being more eco-conscious.
Experts claim that the oil and gas industry is on track for a major skills shortage. 50% of the oil and gas sector’s engineers were eligible for retirement in 2015; now, that figure will be much higher. Furthermore, a recent survey from Broadbean Technology and job board OilandGasjobsearch.com revealed that 36% of oil and gas workers are looking to change career after COVID-19, with the main reason cited being they considered the industry ‘too unstable’.
Then of course there is the ongoing need to improve operations and maintenance to reduce risk and cost – albeit this is not a new challenge.
How technological advancements are helping
The industry’s dependence on data insight, computing devices in daily work and increasing reliance on ever-more complex and linked systems also increases the risk of cyber threats and the potential cost of damage from attacks. Thales’ latest cyberthreat report (February 2020) cites the energy industry as one of the most ‘at-risk’ sectors, hence the need for ever greater resilience strategies.
But the outlook needn’t be bleak. Technological advancements are helping to address the issues discussed at all levels within the industry.
As with most things these days, the cloud could be the answer. The cloud, and IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) can help companies to evolve in the ‘new world’ and take advantage of data-driven solutions to improve operations, organisation-wide communication and decision-making and mitigate risk.
A company must have full visibility of equipment performance, operational efficiency, health and safety and carbon output, in order to make timely decisions.
Advancements in cloud computing are perhaps the most significant development over the past few years for oil and gas companies to take advantage of.
Data insight needs to reach key decision makers at the right time to fulfil its potential in transforming operations. Full cloud infrastructure – which includes servers, storage, networking and security, among other IT infrastructure components – can enable an entire workforce across an organisation to access and share data quickly and securely regardless of location or device.
Parallel collaboration is also possible within a full cloud system, enabling both key decision makers and operators to cooperate with each other at the same level without the need for hierarchy communication, providing a more streamlined experience and saving time costs.
Additionally, as an internet-led solution, cloud developments are paving the way for the oil and gas industry to benefit further from wearables, robotics and drones. With the emergence of 5G connectivity and satellite broadband, it’s possible for real-time video streaming through robotics back to the ops room or boardroom.
But crucially, there now exists tools to enable end-to-end asset management and oil well data analytics and combine economic, production and operational data into one holistic platform to improve efficiencies and reduce cost. All of this contributes to far more accurate, instantaneous decision making.
These benefits give cloud the edge over legacy IT systems, as facilitating an organisation-wide connection, from the boardroom to the drill floor and employee’s homes is crucial.
Big Data & AI
If oil is ‘black gold’; now data is ‘the new oil’, the most valuable asset in the new world.
Exploration and oil and gas operations generate a wealth of unstructured data, collected through a plethora of linked sensors and software. While this data is critical in itself for risk mitigation, monitoring equipment performance and fault discovery, it could be optimised for decision making by leveraging AI analytics.
In a world in which big data plays an ever-increasing role in influencing decisions, organisations have become more conscious of the threat of data ‘overload’. As data floods oil and gas operations, AI analytics can process large data streams and recognise and flag insights that should come to senior leaders’ attention.
The oil and gas industry, like many others, is growing out of the ‘age’ of simply amassing data; AI tools built for industry can further assist with proactive and timely decision-making in the boardroom.
Robotics and automation
Perhaps the most significant development in automation is natural voice recognition, although it may well be years before the technology is developed enough to be used more widely across the industry. Natural voice recognition promises the sector a real opportunity to build automation capability into critical tasks, such as reporting on incidents, and with a higher level of accuracy and speed. This capability will eventually be adapted fully for both portable devices and wearables in the sector.
Finally, robots ‘as a service’ is beginning to take the industry by storm for its potential to revolutionise safety and efficiency. This not only vastly improves safety but could help tackle the industry-wide skills shortage. Whilst human input into safety critical incidents will remain essential, robots as a service promise to be much more than a life-saver.
Looking to the future
All of these new and emerging technologies hinge critically on resilient WAN and LAN infrastructure being in place, which in the demanding and often extreme setting of the oil and gas industry is often easier to talk about than to achieve. Embedding ever greater degrees of IT system resilience and redundancy will become ever more vital to the health of the sector.