Lessons from the pandemic: Rethinking remote

By Jørgen Bruntveit, FourPhase

FourPhase Continuous Production and Solids Removal System: Remote technology can bring benefits that contribute to improving the overall performance and efficiency of operations (photo: FourPhase)
FourPhase Continuous Production and Solids Removal System: Remote technology can bring benefits that contribute to improving the overall performance and efficiency of operations (photo: FourPhase)

Digitalisation in the oil and gas industry is not new. In fact, it has been steadily integrating itself into the fabric of the sector’s operations for the last few years. But while the limelight might have shone on digital twins, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, 2020’s COVID pandemic has put the floodlights on remote capabilities.

With digitalisation and the integration of technology in our everyday lives, the world has seen many historically manual activities transition to fully remote and digitalised practices. Remote capabilities present many advantages, and their strength and adaptability has been widely demonstrated in today’s environment, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while some industries are already fully immersed into remote working, others like the oil and gas sector, could benefit from these evolving technologies by integrating them further into their everyday operations. It is time for the oil and gas industry to start rethinking remote.

Barriers that are hard to break
As a historically physical and hands-on industry, there is a preconception that it is unfeasible or unappealing to switch oil and gas operations to remote. Indeed, one could find it hard to envisage drilling activities being performed remotely. Added to a certain fear of the unknown and hesitance to adopting new processes (particularly in an industry that has been functioning with similar techniques and trusted methods for years) the case for introducing a relatively new and unseasoned technology could prove hard to sell.

Another critical factor which may deter operators from taking the leap and going remote, are the concerns over safety and contingency in case of an emergency. In a remote environment, one cannot simply press the “…red button…”, so how do we replace the physical shutdown procedure with the same efficiency and safeguarding? The lack of immediate and tangible response to risk is possibly seen as one of the biggest threats of relying on a fully remote system.

But in fact, the oil and gas industry has been operating remotely, or close to it, for years. Take the example of central control rooms for instance. We have stepped away from pure manual control by people physically handling the equipment, to having central control rooms offshore. Going fully remote would simply be a case of extending that link through the internet to an onshore central point.

An ever-changing environment
We live in a rapidly changing and evolving world. And what the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is the need for flexibility and resilience in all aspect of the oil and gas industry. Such a climate of uncertainty may have pushed operators to reconsider strategic aspects of their production, but we must also consider the logistical impact of the pandemic. Indeed, social distancing measures have significantly affected the flow of personnel across the industry. Combined with the introduction of modern offshore platforms with reduced sizes and personnel capacity – satellite rigs being the perfect example – minimising the amount of personnel offshore and in possibly hazardous environments by carrying out tasks digitally is among the most apparent and practical advantages of remote operations.

The power of remote communications
Remote technology can also bring more intangible benefits that contribute to improving the overall performance and efficiency of operations. It is often assumed that remote working is detrimental to communication. But in fact, remote communication can be as effective, if not stronger than traditional communication methods. Remote control centres enable workers onshore to gather in the same room, combining more varied knowledge and expertise, which lends itself to a much stronger and rational outcome. In this sense, remote communications can unlock access to a wider pool of talent and skills, at all times, and equip operators with better solutions to make smarter and more appropriate decisions adapted to each situation.

Remote technologies and innovations for the oil and gas industry are rapidly evolving each day (photo: FourPhase)
Remote technologies and innovations for the oil and gas industry are rapidly evolving each day (photo: FourPhase)

In the event of an out of scope or unforeseen situation on an offshore rig, a remote approach could enable operators to resolve the problem in question and keep activities running, as opposed to having to shut down a well as an automatic reaction.

So: digitalising operations and shifting to remote working presents numerous advantages for the oil and gas industry whether from a productivity, safety, or operational standpoint. But how can operators initiate the shift to remote?

Taking small steps towards remote
Remote technologies and innovations for the oil and gas industry are rapidly evolving each day. But the shift to a fully remote-operated industry will take years, if not decades. Instead, industry players should be looking at the options and solutions already available to them and begin implementing small changes that will improve their business in the short term.

Certain processes are more suitable and optimisable to remote operation. Ongoing, repeatable, and enclosed operations, such as solids management, which are far more predictable and therefore easier to maintain remotely without relying on a sensory approach, are much easier to shift to remote. Solids management technologies offer a light and compact equipment system, that can be easily mounted onto wells with few personnel and without requiring costly infrastructure upgrades. It provides operators with a simple and immediate solution to improve and maintain production performance and enables them to do so fully remotely and digitally.

Going remote does not need to be a costly and arduous process, but instead operators should look at taking small steps to strengthen and adapt specific components of operations through technology.

A digitally connected future
Despite some reluctance and preconceived ideas as to what remote would entail, the oil and gas industry is a great example of the potential of remote technology and of the solutions and benefits such practices can bring to everyday performance and productivity. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important we consider the possibilities digitalisation and technology can bring, and accelerate the changes towards a more productive, modern, and most importantly digitally connected industry, unlocked by the power of remote.

Jørgen Bruntveit, FourPhase COO and CTOJørgen Bruntveit, FourPhase COO and CTO, is an inventor and holder of multiple patents connected to solids removal technology. He has 17 years operational experience in the oil and gas industry, working with Baker Hughes for 10 years before joining FourPhase in 2013. Alongside solids removal technology he actively works on the development and production of high technology downhole tools.