May 18, 2015
The energy industry is fraught with challenges today, including declining production rates coupled with increasing production costs; a lack of knowledge and expertise among young workers due to a retiring skilled workforce; and, of course, a host of complications associated with increasingly remote and dangerous mega projects, not to mention the fall in crude oil prices. Is there potential for wearable technology to address some or all of these industry issues? Can wearables improve operational efficiencies; lead to significant cost savings; and/or make the dangerous, messy, and exceedingly complicated jobs in this sector safer and easier? What enhancements can wearable tech deliver in the oilfield?
When we talk about wearable technology in oil & gas, we are referring to wearable devices that can both collect and deliver data in the field, including Google Glass but especially more ruggedized smart glasses, such as those by Vuzix and Epson, and also VR (virtual reality) headsets like the Oculus Rift. Other devices include smartwatches and other smart wrist- and armbands, smart helmets, and sensors embedded in clothing designed to detect such things as radiation and/or chemicals. Most promising, however, is the smartglasses + AR (augmented reality) combo, along with the data analytics afforded by this new wave of mobile technology.
So how can wearable tech be applied at, say, a drilling site? Wearables can cut down on response time and total working hours by 1) improving communication between control staff and on-site workers; 2) providing workers with the key information they need at the moment they need it, whether data, schematics, maps, guidelines or instructions; 3) enabling advanced, immersive, and remote collaboration, including virtual over-the-shoulder coaching; and 4) boosting on-the-job training—all hands-free. For instance, via smart glasses a worker can have ready access to interactive equipment manuals while repairing an oil rig or bridge cable; or receive specific directives such as emergency procedures at the point of impact. Wearables can pipe step-by-step instructions and illustrations to new, inexperienced workers; and also allow a worker to show a remote colleague first-person-perspective footage from the field in order to diagnose and fix problems quickly and efficiently, and thereby helping to eliminate rework. Thus, smart glasses stand to give energy workers access to real-time information along with the insight and guidance of outside talent and expertise from around the world, enabling greater efficiency and faster decision-making without having to bring in additional resources to remote sites.
What else can be accomplished by adopting wearables in the oil field? On top of improving worker efficiency, this new technology can enhance employee safety by monitoring workers’ health and stress levels as well as their environment, and by alerting workers to safety hazards, suggestions, and procedures—all pretty standard or universally recognized benefits of WT in most industry. From data capture to real-time data sharing and collaboration, wearable devices can solve real problems for oil & gas organizations. A simple solution is to substitute wearables for carrying a bunch of papers or a tablet around in order to capture data from the field quickly and accurately. With a wearable gadget, derrick hands, roustabouts, field managers and geologists charged with inspecting and assessing a site can easily and immediately collect and receive data as well as organize, review and send that information (instead of trying to later decipher and transcribe messy, greasy notes written in the field). This not only eliminates the use of pen and paper while keeping hands free to perform hands-on tasks, but it also greatly reduces downtime. Decision makers can then take that real-time data and turn it into actionable results. The more accurate, relevant and up-to-date the information sent to workers, the higher the quality of their work (duh). Wearables can also be employed to provide real-time operational intelligence by tracking workers and equipment.
Some more potential benefits/applications of WT in the energy industry include:
- Improving the safety and well-being of workers by heightening their situational awareness. Simplifying workers’ daily operations in the field by delivering key information and remote support whenever and wherever needed.
- Enhancing worker training by using VR headsets to prepare workers for both offshore and onshore rig environments. With smart glasses, specialists can also effortlessly record point-of-view video for new operators and trainees to review and consult in a hands-free fashion while in the field. AR also facilitates on-demand, on-site training, along with integrating training into production (whereas traditional training tends to interrupt operations). Indeed, wearable tech may be the answer to the serious shortage of skilled labor in oil fields, as well as a means of reducing training costs.
- Using smart glasses with built-in AR software for equipment maintenance and troubleshooting: Rather than look at diagrams as one would in the traditional mobile or even 3-ring binder approach, the wearable tech combo allows field workers and engineers to interact with 3-D models to gain a better understanding of the equipment. AR anchors information when and where workers need it by superimposing text and imagery over the user’s view of the real world.
- Eliminating the need for rework, increasing response time, and diminishing downtime = major cost savings. Real-time facilities, equipment, workforce and environment monitoring + real-time performance metrics. Assistance in incident investigations by documenting and reconstructing events.
While a smartphone may have some of the above capabilities, in a high-stress, hazardous and even volatile environment in which workers need to have their hands free to work safely and efficiently, wearables have a stronger case for use. Traditional mobile devices still require something of which not every oil & gas worker is capable: using a device with one hand, while carrying out essential work with the other. This may not be an issue for a retail worker perhaps, but an oilfield worker is usually not in a position to whip out his smartphone at a moment’s notice to read the alert warning that a nearby pipeline is about to burst. In that scenario, a smartwatch would be a safer, more effective alternative. It’s also just not practical for oilfield workers to use traditional mobile devices such as tablets or even paper and pen to fill out checklists while performing a variety of tasks with their hands. The jobs we’re talking about are dirty, dangerous, and complicated; Google Glass, for example, would allow employees to complete tasks while simultaneously filling out checklists via voice commands. There’s also the hope that wearable technology will help attract a younger, tech-savvy workforce, especially as the skilled forces are retiring off at an alarming rate in the energy sector.
Nevertheless, there are significant challenges to implementing wearable tech in oil & gas. Energy is an industry drowning in data and active in scattered, remote locations; while many industry executives recognize the transformational potential of new technology such as wearable devices, they are hesitant to adopt this tech. It may seem strange that in an industry thought to be very high-tech, professionals are slow to adapt the latest technologies to the oil field, but this is generally the case with technology that originates in the consumer space. Just getting big oil companies to officially adopt smartphones took some time. The oil industry is really quite conservative about gadgets.
Then there is the “robustness” of currently available wearable devices. From a safety and practicality standpoint, manufacturers catering to this sector will have to consider such issues as sturdiness in the field and interference with other equipment; they will have to consult the oil & gas standards for equipment, and alter their products to meet those standards. As of now, most wearables are not quite ready to be introduced onto a rig site; they’re not rugged enough. For instance, there is no impact-rated version of Google Glass. This is a problem: not only do all electronics used in the vicinity of large oil & gas operations have to be rated for the possibility of flammable gas leaks, but any reputable oil or gas operation will also require impact-rated safety glasses. Remember that the prototype of Glass was not designed to meet any one industry’s safety requirements, and it will most likely take a really great or undeniable user case (or multiple use cases) in the energy sector before a solution will be developed.
You really can’t expect Glass to just work out-of-the-box in an oil field, which makes partnering in order to create customized models and tailored applications necessary. Even then, it’s often a case of inflated expectations or else disillusionment, because, in reality, it will take some time for consumer-grade devices to be made ready for the world of the oilfield. Moreover, the business case for investing in digital technologies in the energy industry is not clear. Existing workflows and processes create bottlenecks; operational spread and remote locations hurt, too, as does the inability to find the required talent (the right partners, data scientists, etc.); and the overall organizational culture, which doesn’t support digital investments, especially investments in immature technology that poses physical as well as cybersecurity concerns.
So what will it take to convince oil & gas organizations? Most likely: ruggedized, explosion-proof wearable devices running custom software for data security and operable without net connectivity—is that too much to ask? In addition, a really great user case would help. Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company, has already been testing Google Glass along with partner Wearable Intelligence. Schlumberger workers are using the technology to handle workflow in places tablets can’t go: Glass guides them through their daily tasks, and gives invaluable, real-time performance metrics back to management.