Oil and Gas Needs To Stop Dragging Its Feet on Digitizing Safety Functions

It’s no secret; oil and gas industry leaders acknowledge they have been slow to embrace digital technologies. A recent Boston Consulting Group report sums it up well: “The oil and gas industry is not an easy place to go digital.” Digitization brings with it the promise of improved safety and efficiency, yet many companies still have a long way to go. It may be surprising to learn that some businesses even lack the technology to locate their workers—which has clear and potentially dire implications for emergency situations.

This is partly because most of the industry is still deeply rooted in 20th-century methodologies, systems, and processes. A report by McKinsey & Company notes that oil and gas companies were actually pioneers in the first digital age of the 1980s and 1990s, making use of 3D seismic linear program modeling of refineries and advanced process control for operations. But, more recently, digital advancements have been limited, occurring in silos. As a whole, the industry is barely digitized end to end and, for the most part, relies on legacy technologies. Full digitalization has proved elusive, but that is beginning to change.

Thirty years ago, "connectivity" meant expensive satellites linking up remote locations. Now, coverage is both pervasive and cheaper thanks to mobile networks. With 5G, private cellular networks will soon be an option for oil rigs and fields in remote locations. What’s more, there are fully interoperable IP communication devices, compared with 20 years ago when such devices were proprietary and lacked the protocols to connect seamlessly to different devices. This has given oil and gas companies a new lease of life and the keys to an AI-based future.

Energy companies generate a huge amount of data yet historically have only used a small proportion. Thanks to artificial intelligence and advanced wireless networks—and soon 5G—data can be computed and analyzed locally, at low cost and with no lag time. This translates into real-world advancements that can lead to better health, safety, and security for a crew using smart sensors, poisonous-fume detectors, IP cameras, and vibration sensors, to name a few.

For example, wearable sensors can provide real-time monitoring to pinpoint workers who might be at risk and can alert the rest of the crew. Internet-of-things-connected wearables such as safety jackets and helmets are already being used by some oil and gas companies for the detection of hazardous gas.

AI, machine learning, and robotics can also reduce health and safety risks by carrying out remote-maintenance operations, reducing or even negating the need for physical inspections. By deploying a fleet of digital agents, oil and gas companies can not only react faster when equipment fails but also prevent failures from occurring in the first place.

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