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December 2013 Exclusive Story

Virtual Presence Technology Extends The Reach Of Oil And Gas Professionals

By Marieke Wijtkamp

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA–Like many industries, the oil and gas sector faces a growing scarcity of experienced workers, which is compounded by the increasing complexity and maturity of field assets. Unlike most industries, however, the time and distance separating this shrinking pool of experts from the problems they are supposed address can be extreme. Adopting new methods and innovative technologies to help manage this environment is pivotal to achieving operational excellence.

One of these innovative technologies is virtual presence, which provides the ability to bring expertise to the site of a problem by virtual means. In the oil and gas sector, companies have deployed this technology and evolved their workflows to incorporate virtual problem solving, eliminating the high costs, delays and safety risks involved with traveling to faraway locations.

In the past, teams would try to diagnose and resolve issues over the phone or by e-mailing pictures. For complex problems, this approach often delayed companies’ ability to find the right solution and often required an expert (or an entire team of experts) to travel to the site. Virtual presence technologies focus on providing the collaborative experience necessary for timely, accurate decisions that are made remotely.

The primary components to virtual presence systems include:

  • Explosion-proof wireless smart cameras approved for operation in EX-hazardous environments;
  • Collaboration software that runs on the computers, smartphones or tablets of subject matter experts; and
  • Central management software and infrastructure to enforce security requirements and control deployments.

To perform, the system must be able to connect to the Internet using wireless, satellite or cellular networks, even in ultralow-bandwidth conditions. With the best virtual presence technology, field workers simply share video, voice, telestrations such as onscreen drawings, and images with the experts who interact live with the same set of tools through the collaboration software on their computers, tablets or smartphones. The remote expert can share images or prerecorded videos to play on the device’s touchscreen panel. By sharing this visual content, the experts can provide field technicians with visual instructions.

Virtual Presence Examples

There are many applications for virtual presence systems in the oil and gas industry, including troubleshooting assets and unplanned events; inspections of health, safety and environmental incidents; reviews during a plant turnaround; and monitoring potential issues for short periods. This ability to quickly diagnose and resolve problems can improve returns.

One major producer used virtual presence as part of a “smart mobile worker” project to troubleshoot and resolve a chronic problem with a remote valve controlled well in the Middle East. For two years, this well would produce oil briefly but yield only gas shortly thereafter. Every two weeks, a company technician journeyed to the well, shut it down, let the oil pool and then restarted the well.

With virtual presence technology, workers in the field can collaborate remotely with technical experts using live interactions and sharing video, voice, telestrations and images on computers, tablets or smartphones to quickly resolve problems and make decisions without costly operational delays, travel expenses or unnecessary HS&E exposure.

After implementing virtual presence technology, the technician was sent to the well site with an EX-rated mobile smart camera. The technician connected the mobile camera over the cellular network and called an expert in the central control room who was running the collaboration software on his PC. As he spoke with the field technician, the remote expert saw live video, drew onscreen and captured pictures to help the technician diagnose the issue.

Together, the technician in the field and the technical expert in the central control room pinpointed the problem and corrected it immediately. In the eight months since, the well’s oil production has continued unabated. In total, the team estimates that this collaborative session contributed $3 million a year of additional revenue.

Another example involved an independent energy company engaged in exploration, drilling and production operations in the Bakken/Three Forks play. This company chose virtual presence technologies to leverage experts and augment safety programs across the organization. Management was particularly interested in using the technology to meet the company’s high HS&E standards and reduce field supervisory risk exposure.

In its Bakken/Three Forks operations, this virtual approach helps the company support remote maintenance and repairs, supervise rig moves, install and commission assets, perform surveys and inspections, and provide emergency response services. The technology is new to the organization and it says it expects to see an immediate reduction in nonproductive time, downtime costs, travel time and expenses for technical experts and related HS&E exposure.

For global organizations with internal or supplier locations around the world, the importance of visual communication becomes even more important to overcome language and cultural barriers.

At the International Association of Drilling Contractors’ 2013 Drilling Health, Safety Environment & Training Asia Pacific Conference last spring, Brunei Shell Petroleum presented a summary of its experiences with virtual presence. The company’s solution included rugged cameras and collaboration software and broadband global area network (BGAN) satellite connectivity over Inmarsat. An offshore rig worker connected wirelessly to show live video and snapshots, talk and draw on screen with onshore specialists in Brunei and Aberdeen using collaboration software on their personal computers. Together, Shell’s team has remotely identified and resolved problems in hours instead of days.

Brunei Shell reports virtual presence has reduced nonproductive time and lost production, cut travel costs and time, and greatly improved the efficient use of its limited global expert base. Reducing travel also reduces overall HS&E exposure. With the cost of each trip to an offshore rig averaging $25,000, virtual presence drives significant value immediately.

New Business Demands

Many experienced industry workers are approaching retirement age. The net result of this demographic shift is progressively fewer people in the field with the specialized knowledge about how to address issues as they occur. This change creates new demands on the business to quickly bring high-risk events and activities to these experts, instead of requiring them to travel to remote locations. With virtual presence technology, cost savings and training can occur simultaneously by enabling experts to share their experiences with younger staff around the world in real-life scenarios.

One of the other advantages virtual presence technology offers is the ability to record video sessions and store pictures in a central knowledge base. In some cases, recording the live collaboration helps teams perform safety reviews or diagnose core asset problems. In other cases, the recordings are used to cross-train teams and junior staff, which is becoming critically important as seasoned staff members retire.

Three of the common information technology requirements for virtual presence systems include network controls, secure communication and integration with existing infrastructure. Within an organization, information technology service groups are instrumental in supporting this kind of collaboration and the system must meet internal standards.

Network controls are important for IT groups to control costs and ensure network performance. At a rig or refinery, the existing networks typically are used to share the content. In the case of pipeline maintenance or an onshore well, it is more typical to use a cellular network or BGAN satellite terminal to share content from the field. In either case, IT teams need control over the maximum bandwidth allowable for video collaboration sessions to preserve network performance and limit costs. To accomplish this, the solution must provide central control over bandwidth consumption and other network management issues to perform effectively.

For all enterprises, security over the content is also critical, because it is often sensitive. To deliver a highly secure system, enterprise-grade mobile video software and devices must provide content encryption, wireless authentication and user authentication. All these configuration elements also must be managed centrally to simplify deployments and enforce security policies.

Virtual presence technologies also must integrate with industry-standard video infrastructure and video management systems. Common standards such as session initiation protocol and h.264 video codecs are essential to preserving existing infrastructure investments.

Challenges And Benefits

For many organizations, the key challenge is often network access. Since locations are typically isolated and widespread, it can be difficult to get connected. To overcome this, one major operator deployed virtual presence smart cameras on all its offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico using an EX-certified wireless access point and cable reel. With this low-cost network solution, the operator could deploy quickly and bring the network to trouble spots as needed. For onshore operations that do not have access to cellular networks, a portable BGAN satellite terminal is the most common network access solution.

In all these cases, bandwidth often can be a major challenge, which means virtual presence solutions must perform at bandwidths as limited as 60 kilobytes a second. Teams still need to be able to see detailed visuals, talk and interact fully even in these ultralow-bandwidth environments. For situations in which the Internet is inaccessible, field workers must be able to record locally and later share the video with remote specialists.

Another virtual presence deployment challenge is change management. To successfully deploy any new technology, strong support and leadership are essential. The most successful virtual presence projects have included an executive sponsor, project manager and internal IT support. Ideally, the new technology should be built into existing workflows with user guidance on details, such as who workers should call when they encounter issues.

There are many and varied benefits of virtual presence technology, depending on the use case for remote collaboration. In all cases, the ability to provide immediate input removes costly delays from the decision making process, eliminates travel costs and improves safety.

For example, the Bakken/Three Forks independent operator sees virtual presence as a core part of its safety programs. There are also considerable quantifiable benefits. In the case of the underperforming well in the Middle East, virtual presence technology meant an additional $3 million in annual revenue. As Brunei Shell described at the IADC Asia Pacific conference, virtual presence reduced nonproductive time and HS&E exposure. In all of these cases, deploying this technology brought immediate returns.

With the challenges organizations face in efficiently deploying valuable expertise while managing increasingly complex and mature assets, these virtual presence technologies are more necessary than ever. By allowing teams of far-flung people with various skill sets to simultaneously see and understand field problems, the technology is prompting quicker and better decisions that contribute to bottom-line results. Organizational leaders charged with the responsibility of increasing production while decreasing costs and downtime now have a new option to help their teams perform in the field.

Marieke Wijtkamp

MARIEKE WIJTKAMP is vice president of marketing and client services at Librestream Technologies Inc. In this role, she works directly with leading oil and gas organizations on worldwide deployments of virtual presence technology. She has held prior positions in marketing, business development, strategic planning and corporate leadership in several technology companies. Most recently, Wijtkamp was president and chief executive officer of OMT Inc., a technology solutions provider to the media. In that position, she spent six years at the head of the company’s two technology service based operating divisions. Prior to that, Wijtkamp was vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Norsat International Inc., a satellite technology company, and Infocorp Computer Solutions, a business software solutions company. She holds a bachelor’s of commerce degree and an M.B.A. from the University of Manitoba.

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