How virtual reality and robotics could advance the energy industry

  • Oil and gas companies are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Drones and four-legged robots are used to detect methane leaks.
  • This article is part of the “Innovation at Work” series exploring trends and barriers to workplace transformation.

R&D for emerging technologies is sometimes considered a discretionary expense. But it’s essential for oil and gas companies if they want to reduce their huge operating costs in a volatile energy price environment.

Advancements in technology have the potential to deliver real business value. A 2020 study by Ernst & Young examined 124 jobs in the Canadian oil and gas industry and found that innovations such as robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning automation could reduce staff by up to 30% and automate 50% of job skills in upstream oil and gas by 2040.

Industry players are realizing that they have to make expensive short-term investments to have any chance of realizing long-term operational savings. Unpredictable events like the pandemic have exposed new vulnerabilities – demand for oil has plummeted 30% amid COVID lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

The sector has also seen more investors taking positions in their portfolios in response to climate crisis risks. Governments have also taken action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector to meet their net-zero emissions targets.

The pressure on oil and gas companies “to increase operational efficiency while reducing carbon footprints has been relentless,” Lance Mortlock, energy manager at Ernst & Young Canada, told Insider. “This has created a ripe opportunity for technology to play an even bigger role in the energy sector.”

However, to realize the full value of technology investments, energy leaders will need to upgrade worker skills and attract a more skilled workforce in areas such as robotics, software engineering and data analytics. .

“Digital twins” optimize energy projects

Oil and gas leaders are using virtual reality and augmented reality to create “digital twins” of current energy projects for training and simulation learning. Shell, for example, has created a digital twin of its Pulau Bukom oil refinery in Singapore, with the aim of allowing engineers to operate the plant entirely with tablets. Since the factory would not require employees to work in person, it would reduce their travel-related carbon footprint. The company also hopes the digital twin could optimize the platform’s performance and lifespan, thereby reducing carbon emissions.

At the same time, Shell is reskilling its frontline workers, such as service technicians, in digital literacy and data analytics.

Enbridge, a multinational pipeline company that operates in the United States and Canada, told Insider that it also sees “great potential in VR technology” and is exploring it for various applications, including pipeline safety and security. optimization of wind turbines.

The company’s innovation labs – one located at its Calgary headquarters and the other in Houston – tested virtual reality to take large amounts of data and render sections of a pipeline in 3D.

The result? Engineers are able to accurately identify potential hazards, including small bumps, cracks, areas of corrosion, and stresses on pipelines caused by gradual ground movement.

Researchers are also experimenting with virtual reality to simulate wind turbines. This provides data for measuring performance and determining optimal turbine placement – ​​a feature that maximizes turbine power output.

Robots and drones support decarbonization efforts

Earlier this year, TotalEnergies, a French energy giant, introduced drones to its upstream oil and gas sites around the world to detect methane and carbon dioxide leaks. The drones identify the source of the leaks with an ultralight miniature gas sensor attached to it. The company calls the drones “an important step” towards a goal of reducing methane emissions by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030.

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The “Spot” could automate tasks such as factory inspections and identifying methane emissions leaks.

Photo courtesy of Woodside

Shell has also introduced canine robots – called “Spot” – in some of its locations. Boston Dynamics, a US-based robotics company, developed the bots, which automate mundane tasks that humans often don’t perform as reliably, such as factory inspections and identifying leaks. methane emissions. BP has been using these robots for the same purpose since 2020, including on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robotics and drone technology, in turn, free up human talent to do more important work that maximizes their capabilities.

A path to the creation of highly qualified jobs

Mortlock said these types of developments will help the energy sector combat market instability and pressure from stakeholders to improve its carbon footprint.

It will also help create a new talent pool of people who would otherwise not view the sector as innovative.

“Many highly qualified people are motivated by the opportunity for diverse and intriguing work,” he said. “The need for multidisciplinary and digitally savvy employees will require significant upskilling of the current workforce, as well as a focus on acquiring new talent to supplement what cannot be taught. internally.”

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