Oil Rigs Run on AI Twins Point to a Future Hastened by COVID
The coronavirus crisis had a devastating effect on oil-company revenues, but it has posed a tough human-resources problem too: how to keep workers safe on cramped rigs at sea where social-distancing is impossible. Many operators have found an answer in technology—specifically, digital twins.
The coronavirus crisis had a devastating effect on oil-company revenues, but it’s posed a tough human-resources problem too: how to keep workers safe on cramped rigs at sea where social-distancing is impossible.
Many operators have found an answer in technology—specifically, digital twins. These interactive 3D simulations of oil platforms and plants allow engineers to avoid toiling for weeks in the sweaty, close confines of a wind-battered rig, instead gaining virtual access from home.
Digital twins aren’t a new idea, but advances in computing—and widespread coronavirus restrictions—have helped them go mainstream in the oil industry, where the pandemic has swept through teams of engineers working elbow-to-elbow offshore.
“COVID-19 has been a catalyst for this type of digital innovation,” said Mitch Flegg, chief executive officer of Serica Energy, which is using the system at one of its North Sea fields. “The demands of operating with social-distancing measures have made the value of digital surveys even more apparent.”
The North Sea has seen multiple cases of coronavirus among rig workers. More widely publicized was the disastrous outbreak at Mexico’s state-owned producer, Petroleos Mexicanos. Pemex data show its platform workers are 10 times more likely to die from the virus than the average Mexican citizen.
Focus on Digital
The need to ensure worker safety while keeping sites running has fueled investments in digital technology this year, even as companies slash spending in other areas.
“We saw the vast majority of our customers cutting operating expenditure but not cutting budgets in digitalization,” said Paula Doyle, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Cognite AS, a provider of digital-twin systems. Cognite signed a large contract just a week after lockdowns were enforced in Europe in March, as the value of remote working became clear, she said.
At Serica, engineers have recently surveyed 4,000 different areas of the North Sea’s Bruce field with 3D laser scanning. A planned full digital survey of the Bruce platform will allow the company to stop flying specialists in and out so frequently, because a lot of work can be done onshore through visualizations.
Digital 3D models will help Serica’s onshore team—which currently make do with 2D drawings—direct the offshore crew, according to Flegg.