Oil and gas industry warming up to wearable tech
29 January 2020
Wearable tech is still in its infancy in the industrial space, and much of the developments today are largely catering to the consumer markets. However, oil and gas companies have started evaluating the possibilities of deploying wearable devices in day-to-day operations.
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Earlier, the trend among oil and gas companies was to equip workers with industrial-grade smartphones or similar devices when sending them out on field assignments to enable continuous communication. Wearables are an upgrade over smartphones as their ‘hands-free’ feature allows workers to go about their duties while maintaining remote contact with the control room. In the case of both types of devices, mobility and real-time data exchange are of paramount importance for companies.
Adoption of sensors and camera technologies has grown considerably in oil and gas operations with an increase in deployment of wireless connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT). Wearables, which essentially function as portable data collection devices when worn by field personnel, can gather sensor or imagery data in different areas of a production facility based on the type of device worn, such as wristbands, smart helmets, smart glasses, and smart workwear, wearables. These devices also transmit the data to the control room using wireless networks for further processing and may even notify the wearer in case of an emergency.
Human augmentation to simplify hazardous operations
The major area of interest in wearable tech is its ability to free up the wearer's hands, enabling them to perform tasks without any hindrance. Wearable devices can augment natural human capabilities, such as enhanced vision or smell (gas detection), thereby adding productivity and safety in oil field operations.
Wearable technology has the potential to enhance workers’ efficiency and productivity in several ways. The technology can augment physical and cognitive processes through over-the-air support from experts located onshore, which is currently being tested by Shell and Baker Hughes at their respective facilities. It also has the scope to deliver relevant information to field personnel to support spot decisions while reducing complexity.
One such use case is being implemented by Anglo-Dutch major Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) in its oil and gas operations. In 2019, the company began equipping its workforce with a head-mounted wearable device to fast-track maintenance and repair activities. The device features a head-mounted wearable computer with microdisplay, camera, and headsets that can be worn by field technicians while executing maintenance procedures. It incorporates mobile computing, augmented reality, and mobility software to enable workers to interact with remotely-based experts in real-time. The hands-free device allows a technician to execute the repairs while getting the required technical assistance from the expert via video call. Shell observed a notable improvement in the execution of maintenance procedures with the adoption of these devices. It enabled workers to perform with a higher level of efficiency, encouraging Shell to deploy the technology across 12 countries worldwide.
Similar application of wearables is being tested by oilfield service providers Baker Hughes and Schlumberger in their respective operations. Baker Hughes has issued AR-enabled helmets to its maintenance crew for enhancing productivity and efficiency during inspection and maintenance activities. The field technicians can capture the exact condition of the machinery using the helmet and share that data to its offices in the US. A team of experts from the US can supervise the whole operation remotely without actually travelling to the production site. Schlumberger has customised Google Glass to gather field data via gestures and voice commands, enabling technicians to take hands-free notes.
Wearable tech for enhancing workplace safety and emergency response
In the industrial context, wearable devices provide a safe and secure workplace to the wearer while minimising the impact of unforeseen events. Field personnel are generally more prone to health issues and accidents while working in industrial settings that involve remote locations, assets that are not easily accessible, extreme temperature and pressure variations, and the presence of heavy equipment in the surroundings. In such working conditions, wearable devices are able to capture vital statistics of the field workforce and monitor health conditions and transmit these to command centres on a real-time basis.
Some wearable devices are equipped with gas detectors to monitor external surroundings for poisonous or corrosive gases and send location-based alerts to the wearer and other crew members using geofencing solutions. These devices enhance safety while working under harsh environmental conditions observed on oil and gas production platforms and refineries among other industrial facilities.
Marathon Petroleum, the US-based refiner, has developed an end-to-end gas detection and alarm management system with technical assistance from Accenture, Cisco, AeroScout, and Industrial Scientific. The system comprises a wearable multi-gas detection sensor with integrated wireless infrastructure and location tag to transmit gas-level data and personnel location simultaneously. In the event of hazardous gas leakage, the system automatically triggers an alarm, informs the individual and nearby crew members and also sends an alert to the centralised monitoring centre. This, in turn, helps the crew to follow the standard evacuation procedure that is then tracked by the monitoring centre in real-time to ensure personnel safety. The location-based system also helps to deploy first responders in the event of an accident.
Oil and gas companies are actively involved in the research of wearable technology to open up even more use cases in field operations. BP is developing a wearable jacket that has sensors placed at strategic points to monitor physical movements of personnel in heavy lifting operations. The company is aiming to use sensor data from these jackets to train personnel on the correct posture to be adopted while lifting. In 2019, a Norwegian company, Wenaas Workwear, introduced workwear using high-tech fabric that offers superior thermal protection and mobility under sub-zero operating conditions at oil fields.
Wearable technologies allow for the possibility of creating numerous types of data collection and information exchange devices in oil and gas applications. By leveraging sensors, wireless connectivity, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, wearables could bring about a paradigm shift in worker safety and efficiency in field operations.
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