lines carrying oil at Fahud, Oman’s oldest producing oil field.
Pipes, called flow lines, carry oil from some of the hundreds of wells that make up Fahud, Oman’s oldest producing oil field. Image: Marcus George

It’s mid-morning and the heat is intense as technician Yahya Riyami steps out onto an arid plain deep in the heart of Oman.

Like generations of oil workers, Riyami is clad in work overalls, a hard hat and safety boots.

Today, thanks to a new wave of digitalisation sweeping the energy world, he is also equipped with a headset and tablet which he uses to access live operational data and monitor production.

Such innovation may not be out of place in some other industries. But facing sustained lower oil prices, energy companies are increasingly adopting digital technologies which use masses of instantly available data, or big data, to maintain or boost production.

Industrial machinery is increasingly embedded with software and sensors which connect wirelessly to provide live data streams and which respond to digital commands. Analysing such data improves decision-making and efficiency.

“We’re moving to a digital way of working,” says Jaap van Dijk, a control and automation engineer for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) – a joint venture between the government of Oman, Shell, Total and Partex – which is rolling out the mobile platform Yahya is using.

“We’re bringing the technology and connectivity that we use in our personal lives to our fields. That’s a real buzz. It’s driving major efficiencies at a time when we need to do more with the same number of workers.”

Analysts in Shell’s Smart Field control room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Shell and other energy companies use control rooms like this one in Malaysia to monitor and analyse live data

Changing times

Other sectors, such as healthcare and financial services, were early adopters of digital technologies and big data.

The oil and gas industry has been slower to adapt. But it is catching up as companies seek to unlock more energy at less cost.

In July, Baker Hughes and General Electric’s oil and gas businesses merged, creating a larger oil field services company looking to capture and analyse growing data volumes.

In the USA, ConocoPhillips is using data to drill wells more quickly. UK-based BP is planning a big increase in the company’s ability to gather and analyse data.

And Shell is adopting a data-driven approach to streamline many of its operations and improve safety through technology and work processes.

It is also exploring the potential of enhanced automation and artificial intelligence.

Despite the impact of lower oil prices on investment, there remains the need to meet rising global energy demand.

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to have grown by 2 billion to more than 9 billion people. Living standards will also improve: many will own their first car or use their first computer.

Heavy oil

Oman, a Gulf state with aging oil fields, faces especially tough production challenges.

It typically has complex reservoirs with heavy oil that is difficult to extract. In recent years, PDO has developed techniques to boost production.

These include a data tool, called Nibras, which collates 1 million data values every couple of minutes from its 10,000 wells and other PDO infrastructure.

The data provides key indicators on wells and the state of the reservoir, which help engineers make better decisions.

It’s Riyami’s role to check data readings and adjust components. Until the introduction of the mobile platform, that was a time-consuming task. But now he can identify and solve issues quicker than ever.

“If you keep the reservoir optimised then production increases,” says Riyami. “Previously, we’d have inspected a production component that needed adjustment. If we couldn’t get expert advice from engineers on the phone, we weren’t able to change settings there and then. With the mobile platform, changes that sometimes took two days can now be made in an hour or two because we can communicate so much faster.”

Technician Yahya Riyami checks his tablet to see if adjustments at a well head are showing up in real-time data
Technicians like Yahya Riyami use tablets to check whether adjustments they make are showing up in real-time data. Image: Marcus George

Staying connected

As they travel several kilometres between wells dotting the desert, Riyami and his team can monitor live data as they go.

Through Nibras, they can check that their well adjustments are working or identify faulty data readings. It helps reduce the time technicians spend outside, where temperatures can reach 50° Celsius.

From remote locations, they can join video conferences with specialists sitting anywhere in the world. Recently PDO engineers held a video call with a supplier about a faulty component at Nimr oil field in southern Oman.

During the call a technician at the wellhead, a PDO engineer in Muscat and the UK-based supplier found a way of fixing the equipment, avoiding the need for the supplier to visit Oman. It saved time and money.

“Alongside others, PDO is pushing the frontier of digital technology in the oil industry,” says Bert Natalicchio, Shell’s Vice President of Engineering and Smart Technologies.

“This platform is about bringing office capabilities into the field. Digitalisation is about transforming the way you work, and that’s happening in Oman.”

By Marcus George

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