July 2020


Digital: Restricted site access shines a new light on the benefits of remote operations

It is no secret that the oil and gas sector has eyed the advantages that can be gained from remote operations as it seeks to improve both operational efficiency and safety.

It is no secret that the oil and gas sector has eyed the advantages that can be gained from remote operations as it seeks to improve both operational efficiency and safety. This journey has been hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remote and autonomous operations offer substantial benefits to operators; however, steps taken to implement the technology have been small and isolated. As access to sites has become more restricted, operators have refocused their attention on the benefits remote/autonomous operations provide their facilities.

Project delivery models, including front-end engineering design (FEED) services, have a strong user case to remotely support engineering, procurement and construction contractors.

The target of operations within the oil, gas and chemicals sectors is to satisfy requirements for safety, productivity and quality at the lowest available cost. The authors’ company’s internal studies have shown that 80% of production downtime is preventable—much is due to operator errors. These errors cost the petrochemical industry approximately $20 B/yr.

With challenging prevailing conditions, there is likely to be a growth of remote operations supported by modern artificial intelligent platforms.

Steps to autonomous operations

It is commonly acknowledged that there are five steps on the journey toward autonomy, with key milestones including remote automation, unmanned facilities and fully autonomous operations.

Two examples of remote automation in upstream field development include:

  • A production platform in the Valhall field in the North Sea. Extraction operations at the site are run from a complex of six separate, bridge-connected steel platforms with two identical unmanned facilities (The Valhall flank developments) approximately 6 km from the field’s center.
  • The Augustino and Barbara gas fields in Italy, which were both predominantly unmanned and remotely operated. No people were on site and all operations were undertaken remotely from a control center. However, even a comparatively simple operation like this introduced several challenges. It highlighted the task of ensuring safety when not physically present on a site.

The final step along the autonomous pathway involves moving to a fully unmanned operation, which has occurred in several production platforms/sites around the world.

Delivering the key technologies

What oil, gas and chemicals companies are discovering is that key technologies required for autonomous operation are proven to enhance operations. From automation through the safety systems, communication systems, cybersecurity and dashboard technology, the technology is ready to deploy—nothing is preventing an operator from having an autonomous system.

However, it is not just about having the right technology and right work processes. It is imperative to changing the mindsets of the people who will be using them. If the workforce does not believe in the technology, it will never be adopted.

In the hydrocarbon processing sector, companies have remained much more selective in which technologies they choose to adopt. With the the current market situation, that sentiment has been accelerated.

However, it remains important to build confidence and demonstrate capability before moving toward adoption. In that respect, the first step for many chemical companies in navigating the digital landscape is to upgrade and modernize their assets and infrastructure before looking toward remote operations.

For example, the authors’ company was recruited by PetroKazakhstan Oil Products (PKOP) to upgrade the Shymkent refinery with digital solutions for asset integrity that will monitor and assess the real-time health of the plant’s assets (FIG. 1). In doing so, PKOP will gain critical, real-time insights into their assets and production processes. This first step—opening the data connection among various systems and breaking information silos—is pivotal in the journey toward more remote working. It is important to understand where you are to know where you want to go.

FIG. 1. View of PKOP’s Shymkent refinery.

This approach is increasingly being adopted in greenfield sites where uninterrupted access to, and complete visualization of, site data is seen as a fundamental building block to inform decision-making and drive productivity and profit.

For example, the intelligent data platform deployed for the Inner Mongolian Yitai Coal Co. connects electrical equipment, instruments and automation systems to provide an enterprise view of its multiple coal-to-chemicals plants. The digital upgrade has enabled the company to access new realms of data among various systems. This operation has allowed the company to leverage big data and collaborate more effectively to improve productivity and profit, while reducing investment and operational costs.

Autonomous for safe, smart and sustainable operations

The industry has recognized that autonomous operations can help make systems safer, more capable and reliable, as well as more cost-effective. One of the remaining challenges is how to scale up and apply autonomy to full-size installations, ensuring they are not only operationally sound but also safe.

Several layers of autonomy exist, enabling operators to advance their autonomy knowledge with each step.

Every operator’s journey will be different, but ultimately it is based on the same overarching question: How can we improve this operation? With necessity created by the current global pandemic, opening the eyes and minds of operators, the speed of adoption is increasing. What has been a steady progression is gathering pace and could herald a paradigm shift in hydrocarbon operations. HP

The Authors

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