Look closely at the history of oil and gas industry, and you’ll find that the pace of change is never a smooth line. Often, progress happens through periodic leaps driven by new technologies and processes which are so significant that they alter the way that things are done and viewed forever. The fact that you are likely reading this on a laptop or mobile device rather than a printed page is all the proof you need of how quickly technology can change long-ingrained habits.
The next technology shift will include wearables
Today, the oil and gas industry stands on the verge of its next significant technology progression – one which will have a profound impact on safety, efficiently and cost, and driven by a blend of specialist mobile devices, context-aware apps, and wearable devices.
Rather than a single breakthrough or eureka! moment the technology stars have aligned in a way that these technologies, which have been incubated in the consumer technology space, are primed for uptake by industry. Innovative smart glasses and other wearable devices have developed to the point that they can now withstand the harsh environments of pipeline construction and maintenance. Highly specialised and task-specific software now costs tens of thousands of dollars to create and launch, rather than the millions that big, proprietary deployments used to entail.
Just as important as these big changes are the continuing advances in supporting technologies like improved battery life, faster wireless connectivity, haptic controls and speech recognition software – all of which will have a major influence on the evolution of wearable devices in the workplace.
What I find most exciting is that benefits these technologies offer can be applied to virtually any situation within the industry, meaning that for those companies most willing to innovate have almost a blank canvas to work from. As hardware and software improves so too does the range of different kinds of wearable devices being created with industries like energy and utilities in mind.
Already there are ruggedised devices that are able to gather and share video and audio data in the field, plus proven industrial-grade wearables like the Realwear HMT-1 headset. Other wearables such as health trackers, smartwatches and sensor-laden ‘smart’ fabrics will also come into play; but the first devices we are likely to see deployed within the pipeline sector will be these ruggedised smart glasses, as the ability to stay connected with colleagues whilst working hands-free has the most obvious and immediate safety applications.
Wearables and the benefits for pipeline construction and maintenance
Looking at the construction phase of pipeline building, wearables will help improve communications between control staff and on-site workers, allowing much better traceability and workflow monitoring than the paper-based systems that are still in use today. Wearables and mobile devices provide workers with crucial information on-demand, allowing them to call up weather data, schematics, maps, schedules and task-specific instructions as required.
There is also the ability to provide over-the-shoulder advice using video and audio in situations where a worker may need specialist advice or training – a huge time and resource saving. Built-in cameras mean workers can show remote colleagues live footage of faults or problems, letting them diagnose and fix problems quickly and more efficiently and crucially helping to reduce or eliminate costly downtime or rework.
All of these benefits and more can be delivered by relatively simple technologies that in combination become a powerful toolset that helps to save time, better manage resources, and ultimately reduce operational risk. Even small incremental gains in productivity or improved oversight become very significant when scaled across a major project that might involve hundreds of workers on site for many months, where delays and missed deadlines come with unwelcome costs.
Arguably, the potential impact of wearables on pipeline maintenance is even more significant. With more than $1.4 billion dollars spent every year just on the impact of pipeline corrosion, any ability to identify problems earlier will have a direct financial and environmental benefit.
Whilst the industry has already created a robust regulatory framework which seeks to improve the safety of workers and reduce the environmental risk posed by pipeline failures, these regulations are often little more than a paper checklist of should-dos. The problem with traditional checklist and oversight processes is that the regulations are only as effective as both their implementation and the quality of the data captured, meaning the issue of human error is ever-present.
Using these new technologies to remove the reliance on paper and shift entire processes online gives companies the ability to analyse and share data in real time, with 100% transparency and traceability. So with an inspection regime based on a blend of wearables and mobile devices engineers, field managers, and geologists charged with inspecting and assessing sites can quickly process and analyse data and turn it into actionable results. It’s stating the obvious, but better intelligence leads to better decision-making.
IS devices are the first step
So with all this amazing technology on hand, why isn’t it already in widespread use? The simple truth is that upgrade cycles tend to be measured and not rushed; never more so when companies have built processes and cultures on tried and tested (and sometimes outdated) approaches. Innovation often creates bottom-up change – by this, I mean that new ideas and technologies emerge and rely on businesses understanding the potential they offer and taking an educated risk. Industry-wide demand will come from the top down, at the point where the benefits of wearables have been clearly defined and evaluated, and the risk/reward benefit is too great to ignore.
The emergence of Intrinsically Safe (IS) mobile devices is a good example of a technology that matches industry demand with innovation to deliver a solution to a longstanding problem. Intrinsically safe mobile phones are specifically designed for use in explosive atmospheres, such as refineries or anywhere where petrochemicals or combustible materials are processed or stored. Intrinsically safe devices must meet special battery design criteria which eliminate the chance of internal sparking or high internal temperatures which could cause ignition, and be completely sealed to prevent the entry of ignitable gas or dust.
So with IS devices, the innovations we’ve seen in terms of software and specifically Android-based applications become accessible to the entire workforce, and not just a percentage. That, in turn, makes large-scale deployment feasible.
The opportunity presented by tablets and smartphones is certainly a tantalising one. A survey of oil and gas executives by The Economist1 found they expected in five years that 62% of workers to be using smartphone-based systems, and 56% using tablets – up from 38% and 26% today. That may not seem an overly significant increase until you consider that the same survey found that 18% of workers are still using paper-based processes. Often the biggest challenge with any technology shift is overcoming the inertia of sticking to the same ways of doing things, even more so in industries where the simplest solution is often the safest.
IS devices represent the biggest safety innovation in years precisely because of this ability to bring up-to-date working practices into hazard zones where they will make the most difference. Workers with the latest critical information at their fingertips will find it easier to understand and comply with safety policies and established work and maintenance procedures; this, in turn, makes it easier to prevent failures, reduce repair times, and creates a safer working environment.
The introduction of these will pave the way for intrinsically safe wearable devices, as much of the technology inside the IS mobile handsets is transferrable to smart glasses and other devices. So in a relatively short space of time – perhaps 12-24 months – we should start to see workers taking full advantage of the capabilities of this new wave of technology.
Wearables and hands-free working
Whether building pipelines or maintaining and repairing them, chances are the work will need to be done in a hazardous and often remote environment, where mistakes can have human and environmental costs. So the ability to work hands-free in these situations is one of the most obvious and welcome benefits that wearables offer.
Although many of the functions we’ve discussed that wearables are good for can already be done by smartphones and tablets, engineers can’t simply take out a mobile with one hand and Google for information, or check what the hazard alert noise was for. In these situations having a headset or smartwatch where notifications and information can be easily visible in a way that’s not distracting is a perfect hands-free alternative.
- “The new canary in the mine: How mobile is transforming the energy and natural-resources sector”, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2014
Plus, being able to use voice controls and 2-way video means that in even in the most challenging locations, a worker effectively has a whole support crew on-hand.
It’s this ability to shift information access, data input and communications into a single device that only needs spoken commands that makes wearables such an apposite technology for the pipeline industry – and the energy sector as a whole. Taken individually, these benefits may be helpful, but are certainly not game-changers. But when packaged together into a device that’s not much bigger or heavier than conventional safety goggles or a wristwatch, it becomes something that will lead to a revaluation in the way many tasks are done.
The future is (nearly) here
Although the time is ripe for the introduction of these new wearables and mobile technologies into the oil and gas industry, it’s important to not oversimplify the barriers that need to be overcome before it is widespread. The emerging devices need to be proven to function in the harshest conditions over time – which means that extensive field trials will take some time before a wider roll-out can even be considered.
Then there’s the issue of training, updating existing processes, and even addressing existing software infrastructure to take advantage of the much greater wealth of data that will become available. Finally, in a time of slimmer profit margins and financial restraint few companies will want to gamble on major investment until the benefits are tangibly too big to ignore.
But we will see these devices and technologies in use in industry sooner rather than later. Reputable analysts from firms including IHS and IDC predict that in two to three years there will be millions of wearable devices being used by industry – and the majority of these will be head or wrist-worn, to take advantage of the hands-free safety aspect.
As I’ve outlined, so many pieces of the technology puzzle have fallen into place – with ruggedised, intrinsically safe devices, the emergence of Android as a new global standard for enterprise apps, and the flow of industry-ready wearable devices from major manufacturers – that it’s a question of when, and not if.