How technology stepped up when COVID-19 struck

How technology stepped up when COVID-19 struck

Lockdowns caused by the global pandemic stopped the movement of people, but drones, robots and augmented reality came into their own.

By Adam Lusher on Sep 15, 2020

It was an epic voyage, but the crew never left home.

Instead they sent remote-controlled vessel X-07 alone into the Norwegian Sea, 100 kilometres from land, to inspect the Ormen Lange gas field.

Normally, a crew would have gone to sea in an adapted fishing trawler to collect data from sensors on the seabed.

Now, Andrew Carlisle at his kitchen table in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, Mike Lewis in the spare room in the same city, and Eamon Toner in Carlingford, County Louth – all working for X-07’s owner XOCEAN – did nothing more arduous than click a computer mouse.

X-07’s satellite broadband connection and video camera let the experienced mariners take the helm – a computer-generated joystick – without breaching Ireland’s COVID-19 lockdown.

At Shell-operated Ormen Lange, X-07 communicated with the acoustic modems of sensors monitoring the seabed above the natural gas field.

It sent data from the sea to sensor maker Sonardyne, which verified its quality before forwarding it to Shell geophysicists working from home in Stavanger, Norway, and Houston, Texas, USA.

The data reached the geophysicists long before X-07 returned from its three-day mission in April.

“It won hearts and minds,” says Tomas Frafjord, Geomatics Project Manager for Shell Norway, who ran Shell’s side of the operation. “That often shifts people from knowing about technology to actually using it.”

Towards a new normal

The car-sized catamaran, packed with modern technology, became a poster vessel for digital ingenuity during COVID-19.

Like other innovations that began before the virus arrived, X-07’s mission was conceived in a pre-pandemic world. When COVID-19 struck, the technology proved itself.

As lockdowns spread, adoption of digital technology accelerated. Shell operators sought to work remotely, and realised new methods beat the old by reducing risks, costs, and carbon emissions.

“This is the new normal, not a temporary fix,” says Michael Kaldenbach, Shell’s Digital Realities Leader. “We can work more safely and efficiently.”

X-07, an electric vessel running on solar power backed up by a small diesel generator, emitted far less carbon than a trawler consuming marine fuel.

XOCEAN, acting under contract to Sonardyne, offset the vessel’s emissions, including those produced by shipping it from Carlingford in Ireland to Kristiansund in Norway, where its solo voyage began.

Technology proves itself in adversity

Other devices also showed their worth.

“This is one of the busiest times I have experienced,” says Nikki DeBenedetto Ziegler, Innovation Project Co-ordinator at Shell’s Convent refinery in Louisiana, USA. “COVID-19 caused many people to see the value of tech where previously they lacked the reason or time to focus on it.”

In March a crawler robot supplied by Gecko Robotics conducted the refinery’s first automated ultrasonic scan of a tank roof.

The robot could collect 1,000 times more roof thickness measurements, 10 times faster than a human inspector.

The inspector could stay at home, avoid the risk of working at height, and analyse data from any roof, anywhere.

“You still need humans,” says Shell Robotics Analyst Erwin Loonen. “You just use their expertise more effectively.”

Combining human expertise with augmented reality

An IT glitch which temporarily led Shell to close its fuel terminal in Wesseling, Germany, demonstrated this perfectly.

Lockdown restrictions prevented the Belgium-based IT system supplier travelling to Germany, and the problem was too complex to solve in a call. There were concerns the closure might disrupt supplies, for example of fuel to motorists and heating oil to homes.

Terminal Manager Klaus Moeckel grabbed the RealWear headset.

Wearing the headset under his safety helmet, Moeckel used the device’s camera and secure internet connection to show the IT specialist in Belgium what he was looking at.

The specialist gave instructions verbally and through the augmented reality screen of Moeckel’s RealWear device. The specialist could, for example, augment, or add to, the reality of what Moeckel was seeing by circling a wire that needed moving.

The problem was soon fixed.

RealWear also allowed Shell lubricants specialists working from home to show a customer how to mend gearboxes at a Malaysian power station, keeping essential power generation services running. The same technology ensured vital safety checks could go ahead at other plants.

“Almost everyone likes RealWear now,” says Jens Thun, an Automation and Digitalisation Lead for Shell Trading and Supply. “Before COVID-19, there were sceptics. Not now. This technology will permanently change how we work.”

More drones, in tighter spaces

Drones also won admirers.

In July, staff at Shell’s Scotford complex in Alberta, Canada, inspected a 90 metre-high incinerator stack by flying a drone inside it.

This cost an hour’s flying time and a few thousand US dollars, with the surprise bonus of discovering a smiley face secretly drawn by a repair worker in 2010.

Normally a crane would lift a human inspector up and down the stack, with a back-up crane nearby in case of break down. The operation might cost from $50,000 to $100,000.

“The drones make us safer, cheaper and more competitive,” says David Shah, Scotford’s combustion engineering specialist.

“COVID-19 forced us to change behaviour, but lockdown constraints accelerated the opening of minds to new technology and new ways of working.”

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