FEATURE: Oil and gas sector using digital tech to drill for value

Rich McEachran

Data from offshore installations can be sent ashore to optimise maintenance (Credit: GE/ Noble Corporation)
Data from offshore installations can be sent ashore to optimise maintenance (Credit: GE/ Noble Corporation)

By its very nature, the oil and gas industry is a volatile beast.

Supply and demand for the natural resources can be affected by a multitude of environmental challenges and political tensions. This can lead to drops in prices, causing layoffs, rigs to be decommissioned, and investment in exploration and production to be cut.

Operators in the industry have had to adapt to weather the storm. They’re optimising their performance and cutting the cost of production per barrel by adopting technology that will improve their processes and operations. The industry is in the middle of a digital transformation.

The ‘digital oilfield’ is not a new concept – computerised technologies such as 2D and 3D seismic testing have been used since the late 1970s and 1980s – but it has become an umbrella term that, today, encompasses big data and analytics and sensors. Put simply, it is the process of using digital solutions to help companies make faster decisions, increase productivity, and manage assets efficiently.

Take offshore oil rigs. They can produce anything between 25,000 and 250,000 barrels a day. If drilling equipment fails unexpectedly (due to fatigue or pressure) it can lead to a whole site being shut down, because inspecting and maintaining the megastructures can be tricky. Lost production costs can run into the millions. 

Drones for oil rigs take-off

“The biggest challenge for rig operators is seeing what needs to be fixed and doing so safely,” says Pae Natwilai, who spent four years working at Thai national oil and gas company PTT Exploration and Production, leading a design and engineering team to provide inspection and maintenance solutions for hundreds of oil wells. 

“One, there are height issues such as the maintenance of flare tips. Assessing a flare stack could mean shutting down the whole production pipeline just to set up a crane to send someone up to see what’s wrong. Two, the sheer scale of these structures is another critical issue. Assessing an offshore oil platform as a whole requires skilled workers to either climb down its structure or sail out to look at it with binoculars. Even then the level of detail and accuracy that can be achieved isn’t perfect.”

Using drones to spot cracks or corrosion, which might otherwise only be seen from a helicopter, would be far quicker than relying on manual inspections, she says. Natwilai is the founder and chief executive of Trik, a new firm offering drone mapping and 3D reporting software for structural inspection. One of her aims is to allow anyone to operate a drone through a point-and-click interface on a tablet or smartphone. Natwilai hopes to democratise the flying of drones by phasing out the need for specialised knowledge or experienced drone operatives on site. 

“A drone can just fly in and immediately identify what’s wrong with a structure, especially in spaces that a human couldn’t get close to,” she says. “Not only can a drone help to see what exactly needs fixing but, by using 3D mapping and reporting software, companies will be able to create a digital twin of the environment for workers to plan routes to access the space.”

Natwilai continues: “It’s surprising how often updated Building Information Modelling drawings of an oil platform aren’t available. A platform may have been constructed 20 years ago and yet its operators might not know if a corridor or similar is going to be big enough to send equipment in to fix the problem.”

Drones can spot cracks or corrosion in structures faster than people can

Drones can spot cracks or corrosion in structures faster than people can

One issue drones present, though, is that they can take hundreds of photos but users then have to make sense of the data – and this can be a time-consuming struggle. Trik software addresses this issue by automatically converting still images into an interactive 3D model, which can be annotated and used to provide accurate measurements. This enables users to rapidly quantify the data and, for instance, see how quickly something is degrading.

Delays and downtime can be costly. Carrying out maintenance or an inspection in the shortest time frame possible is clearly an advantage for contractors that are under pressure to meet critical targets. What could have an even bigger impact is if operators could spot a defect early and snuff it out before it affected production.

Non-productive time – or NPT – is said to account for anywhere between 10 and 30% of total drilling costs. A 2015 report published by management consultancy McKinsey argued that cutting NPT could provide at least a 5 to 10% reduction in well delivery costs. One likely factor in reducing NPT is being able to predict when equipment might break down. 

Minimising downtime 

Leveraging data analytics to improve operational efficiency is one of the areas being invested in by the Aberdeen-based Oil & Gas Innovation Centre, which is supporting three projects that are researching new approaches to the exploration and production cycle. One of them is a data-driven tool, developed by software company IDS, to predict the duration of tasks, associated risk and NPT. By using natural language processing, the tool classifies certain engineering terms within daily reports, which operators then use to benchmark their processes and performance against others in the industry. This could greatly reduce the time engineers spend working with and analysing the data.

One of the leading offshore drilling contractors, Noble, is taking digitisation further by showing how it has the potential to transform entire fleets. A partnership with General Electric has led to the world’s first digital rig going online. 

While the Noble Globetrotter I drillship is drilling 10 wells off the coast of Egypt, a twin of the vessel is being monitored hundreds of miles away by a team of engineers at GE’s Industrial Performance and Reliability Centre (IPRC). 

Data on things like flow and pressure is collected from sensors and control systems, such as the drilling control network and power management system, and is then transmitted in near real time to the IPRC. This digital twin compares this current data to historical data to see if degradation is creeping in, giving workers onboard the drillship and on shore a holistic view of the vessel’s health, and a realtime understanding of how equipment is performing. “Workers will be informed of any anomalies weeks in advance, meaning they have plenty of time to order new equipment or parts and transport them out to sea,” says Krishna Uppuluri, vice-president of GE’s Marine Solutions.

GE and Noble Corporation say the Noble Globetrotter I is the world's first digital drilling vessel (Credit: GE/ Noble Corporation)

GE and Noble Corporation say the Noble Globetrotter I is the world's first digital drilling vessel (Credit: GE/ Noble Corporation)

Because oil and gas companies are operating in a capital-intensive and harsh environment, it is essential that they protect their assets. However, this usually results in preventative maintenance events being planned months in advance and the schedule being executed meticulously. More often than not, an inspection may be carried out on a rig even if everything is in working condition, explains Uppuluri. 

“Better access to data means better decision making and a more structured approach to maintenance that will allow contractors to reduce their costs,” he adds. 

The Globetrotter I is one of four vessels that have been connected to GE’s digital rig system, which itself is powered by Predix software. Noble is expecting this digitisation to lead to a 20% reduction in maintenance spend by the end of this year. 

Cloud computing now offers unparalleled processing power. This is incredibly useful for remote operations, where a vast amount of data is being collected and sent to shore to be analysed. 

Technology is also easing the accessing of inspection and maintenance records, says Natwilai. “Different departments might have their own records and inspection reports on different equipment. There will also be maintenance records for each piece of equipment, one in the electrical department and another in the mechanical department. Without linking these records together, you can’t see all the history and get an overall picture,” she explains. 

Smarter collaboration

Trik’s system allows users to store records and then use a 3D model to search for records associated with a piece of equipment and to see what other problems have occurred in a nearby area. 

“There may be some very bad corrosion in just one corner of the platform. This might require regular maintenance of the pump, floor, piping, handrail or anything in that corner,” says Natwilai. “Without a database like ours, all this information will be kept in different places and no one would even consider looking for the common cause of why all the equipment in the same area is failing in the first place.”

Technologies like Natwilai’s, that combine digital twins with the Internet of Things, have the potential to improve ageing infrastructure and increase the life of new facilities, says Gerard Lyons, a director at E&P Consulting, which helps oil and gas companies to implement better working practices and technical processes. There is a caveat, though. “Ubiquitous data is definitely driving a digital renaissance, but it needs to be accompanied by a willingness to embrace the opportunity,” he says.

Common drilling rig issues and how technology can help

Drones spot dangers

Loose nuts and bolts pose a danger to production and workers. Drones with an enhanced zoom can analyse the nooks and crannies of an oil rig for any loose parts that might not be visible to the eye. 


Getting corrosion licked

Coating failures on offshore platforms can lead to corrosion. Drones can identify if areas of coating need a new layer applied, without having to send someone out in a boat for an inspection. 


Putting flares in the frame

Flare stacks leaking gas could explode. With thermal-imaging cameras, flare stacks can be monitored to check that they’re firing properly. System solutions, such as that offered by Viper Imaging, can provide alerts for loss of combustion. 


Good vibes, bad vibes

Unusual vibration patterns could be costly. Vibration levels can be monitored by sensors and smart software. A baseline and normal conditions can be established and any deviation from this, such as a higher-than-average vibration level, could signal an issue. Early detection and repair could reduce maintenance costs. 


Valves get smart

Blockages can halt oil flow. Shell’s Smart Fields technology has been in use since 2006. Sensors with fibre-optic cables relay information on conditions, such as temperature and pressure, to control centres. If there’s a problem preventing oil from flowing, workers can activate underground valves electronically and remotely. The technology can increase the amount of oil recovered by up to 10% and natural gas by 5%. 


Discovering reserves of liquid gold

Using fibre-optic sensors to detect temperature changes that indicate the existence of oil or gas in an area has its limitations. Newer technologies allow operators to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ where there’s oil, by aiming lasers into the rock and then analysing the laser-light reflections from different spots in the fibre.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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