AR and VR can Solve many of Core Oil and Gas Challenges
The oil and gas industry has always faced enormous and varied risks concerning safety, politics, regulations, fluctuating markets, and physically challenging environments, to name a few. Today, however, the challenge is more complex than ever.
The price collapse and volatility of the past five years have ushered in a new normal, characterized by caution. To unlock value, companies are emphasizing efficiency, a goal that depends on highly skilled individuals. Meanwhile, the industry is undergoing a crew change, with large numbers of older employees leaving. As a result, the demands for the dwindling ranks of experienced personnel are escalating, and companies are struggling to leverage their expertise.
On top of this, the pace of operational change across the industry has dramatically accelerated. Unlike the past, when upstream assets were viewed through a time horizon of 10, 20 or even 30 years, shale technology has compressed the turnaround time to months or even weeks. This time compression necessitates solutions that require people not to travel to remote locations, but instead to enable them to work remotely. The bottom line: Companies have to do more with less, on tighter budgets, with fewer employees, and at unprecedented speeds.
In the past, such a mandate — with so many forces pulling in different directions — would have been impossible to fulfill. However, emerging technologies are changing that. In particular, some companies are beginning to address these challenges with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Many more could benefit from leveraging these technologies more aggressively.
AR and VR Explained
What exactly are AR and VR? The two technologies are similar in that they both offer virtual visualizations; they enable us to see things that are not actually there. But they differ in important ways.
AR overlays digital elements onto the physical world, typically using a headset or tablet that the user can point toward real-life objects. In retail, AR can enable better navigation of big-box stores by superimposing directions onto the physical store or guide a consumer toward a product. AR allows us to see how furniture might look in our home, by digitally depicting a sofa in the desired space. AR enables games such as Pokemon Go, where virtual creatures appear in the real world.
In contrast to AR, where the user still sees real-world physical surroundings, VR immerses the viewer in a virtual setting that shuts out the physical world. Simply by slipping on a headset, VR can virtually transport a user to the driver’s seat of a race car or cockpit of a space shuttle, enabling him or her to move around in an immersive three-dimensional environment that resembles the real thing.
Applications of AR/VR in oil and gas
In industry, AR and VR are used in a wide variety of settings, including training, maintenance, and planning. In the oil and gas industry, AR headsets that clip onto hard hats can project hands-free instructions a technician needs onto equipment to conduct an inspection or maintain a system. Precise AR animations dramatically boost efficiency and reduce errors and uncertainty by showing the necessary steps, tools, and parts. They can also provide checklists and sensor data and can visually demonstrate which parts to adjust, remove or replace. Instead of being dependent on manuals, AR enables this information to be delivered graphically, where and when it is needed.
AR can also help technicians plan changes they intend to make to equipment. Faced with the challenge of installing a cable in a complex environment on a ship, one company used AR to help mechanics visualize exactly where the cable would need to go and how it would need to be fastened. This provided a clear idea of the challenges they would face.
AR headsets with two-way communications can also enable remotely located experts to communicate with general support technicians and virtually look over their shoulders, in real-time high-definition video. The same technology can record procedures for quality control and future use.
Other AR apps can show what goes on within a piece of equipment, letting technicians better understand how to adjust it. Together, these capabilities help companies cope with the shortage of experienced personnel and reduce the need to transport such personnel to remote places. In the event of an emergency, an AR system can dramatically expedite the team's ability to identify and address the underlying cause.
A critical application for VR in oil and gas is in training. Instead of studying theory in a classroom or transporting people to remote locales, trainees can use a VR headset to enter an environment or interact with a piece of equipment virtually. As in gaming applications, the experience is entirely immersive: When trainees on a virtual rig turns their heads to the side, they see what they would see on a real-world rig. Given the complexity of refineries, drilling platforms, and processing plants, the opportunity to experience life-like training before entering these environments is invaluable, and companies save money that they would otherwise spend flying trainees to sites.
VR apps connected to sensors enable engineers to monitor generators, pumps, compressors and shale shakers in real time, without needing to be on-site. This provides faster, more accurate diagnostics at a fraction of the cost. Geoscientists are also using VR to visualize seismic data, and even to drill virtually, so that they can better determine where to explore.
Status of AR/VR in oil and gas
As with the internet and mobile revolutions, consumers — and particularly online gamers — lead the field in embracing AR/VR. Yet, these applications have begun to gain traction in numerous industries, including manufacturing, aerospace, retail, real estate, education, sports and healthcare.
The oil and gas industry is not yet using AR/VR as aggressively as other sectors. Companies are starting to see success with AR/VR in refineries, especially in maintenance and inspections. Companies are also beginning to see benefits downstream in retail, using AR/VR to understand their stores in a more detailed and intuitive manner.
We believe that the oil and gas industry is uniquely positioned to capitalize on AR/VR for three reasons:
First, industrial AR/VR works best atop large quantities of data, which typically comes from sensors. Those sensors have long been commonplace in the industry, whether in wells, refineries or elsewhere. Because of the ubiquity of these sensors, a huge amount of data is available to be leveraged with AR/VR.
The second reason relates to how that data is stored. Previously it tended to be stored in a proprietary format that made it difficult to exploit for ancillary purposes. That is now changing. Producers are increasingly integrating their data-centric information technology systems with the operations technology systems they use to monitor and control processes and devices. Because of this IT/OT integration, data is more accessible than it was in the past, facilitating the use of AR/VR, for upstream and downstream applications.
The third reason is the rise of digital transformation in the industry, and the shift to a mindset of looking at things from a customer perspective, whether that “customer” is a drilling engineer at a well site, a maintenance engineer in a refinery, or a customer in a retail store. Before, the mindset was to design things according to efficiency, without really stepping into the customer’s shoes.
AR/VR can, therefore, help managers understand how these customers interact with the machines or the store. Using a design-led perspective, companies can then simplify, streamline or otherwise improve processes to deliver a better experience.
Combatting resistance to change
As outlined above, AR/VR has the potential to alleviate profound challenges faced by the industry. Moreover, various factors — the abundance of data, the increasing availability of that data thanks to IT/OT conversion, and the trend toward digital transformation — uniquely position the industry to capitalize on the technology.
So why has the industry been slow on the uptake?
The most critical factor is endemic conservatism in the industry and there is genuine cause for this conservatism. Given the enormous sums of money involved in every aspect and the deep and varied risk profiles, the industry’s slowness to change is understandable. If a new technology fails in a retail setting, you may lose a customer or some money. In contrast, in the energy industry, there is the real potential for loss of life or environmental disaster. This requires any new technology to go through a far more rigorous testing cycle and in some cases, additional equipment is needed to ensure that the new technology can handle the adverse environments typical of a field setting. In a lot of cases, there is also a stringent certification process that any new field technology has to go through.
Additionally, oil & gas field sites, can be very remote. Far more than in any other industry, which poses the real challenge of how to get the required network bandwidth to access the data critical for AR/VR applications from these remote sites.
However, in encouraging clients to consider the technology, we point to success in other industries that face similarly sensitive risks. The prime example is healthcare, where AR/VR is being used in a wide range of applications, from training surgeons to addressing emergencies in remote locations. As an indicator of uptake, a market research found that the healthcare market in AR/VR stood at US$ 933.1 million in 2018 and is expected to reach US$ 3,192.2 million by the end of the forecast period, growing at a CAGR of 36.2% from 2018 to 2023.1
As has also been seen in other industries, a consortium of providers can overcome the challenges noted above. With system integrators, oil field service companies, network providers, hardware providers and others coming together to craft these solutions for the industry. System integrators, like Infosys, will have to take the lead in this but as executives in the oil and gas sector increasingly understand the benefits of AR/VR, the technology will quickly become a competitive imperative.