The role of wearable tech in the oil and gas industry
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The role of wearable tech in the oil and gas industry

Madeline Bennett — September 2016
BP’s technology principal Blaine Tookey reveals the opportunities wearable tech could offer the company’s field workers.

Thinking the benefits of the digital revolution are only for nimble start-ups is a mistake. Legacy organizations such as oil and gas goliath BP are preparing to reap the benefits that digital disruption will sow.

Blaine Tookey, technology principal at BP, admits his industry doesn’t move as fast as the consumer sector when it comes to digital adoption. However, he says: “I believe IoT and wearables will continue to play a big role in the future of oil and gas.”

With this in mind he declares a caveat. Before the oil and gas sector can rush to deploy wearables, the devices must be suitable for harsh environments and stringent safety requirements.

“Anything deployed at BP might be struck by something heavy, trodden on, exposed to corrosive substances and need to survive temperature extremes, whether that’s plus-60C in the desert in Iraq, or minus-50C in the winters of Alaska,” says Tookey.

He continues: “We also need any electronic device to meet the intrinsic safety certification, which means it can’t spark. There are different standards across the world, and equipment certification can take anything from six months for a simple product to three years for anything big and complicated.”
Revenue and mobility

But the pursuit of wearables in oil and gas is a worthwhile objective. Tookey notes that as much as $5 billion per annum could be available for the sector if the right technology were to be rolled out, and much of this potential hinges on mobility.

“Mobility is a key enabler and precursor to how wearables can be used in oil and gas,” Tookey said.

“Field workers are generally alone with a radio and a gas monitor. They’ve been left behind in the digital revolution. But the intrinsically safe-rated mobile phones (devices designed to be robust enough to survive hazardous situations) are changing this. We’ve only had them for a year, but now there are three or four smart Android phones available. Now we can do maintenance workflow in the field, workers can enter data and see inspection points, so that’s really opening up mobility in the plant.

“Our goal is to get all our field workers enabled with mobility. We want parity between the enterprise and industrial mobility.”

“We already have a track record of spending money on equipment. We can afford to spend quite a bit of money, so there’s a lot of margin for the developers.”

Advances in mobile networks will be vital to creating a fully mobile workforce across BP. Tookey points out that wearables will not need backhaul capability, they will just need to talk to the hub, adding that 4G and 5G networks will avoid the need for BP to deploy countless routers for WiFi access.
Safety and efficiencies

The positive industry reaction from the introduction of robust mobiles bodes well for wearables. Tookey came armed with a long list of benefits from wearable technology for oil and gas firms, with safety taking the top slot.

“Wearables can carry out a lot of external sensing that doesn’t happen at the moment, providing real-time feedback about the environment to the control room and giving feedback to associated workers rather than just the individual,” he explained.

“We put workers in really hot environments such as 50C, for up to two hours at a time. We want to know what’s happening to a worker’s health and monitoring it could be really valuable. Managing and communicating the need for an emergency response via smart technology in workers’ jackets is also a huge opportunity.

“There is also a multitude of miniaturised sensors I’d like to see, all Bluetooth-enabled, to identify when an employee is lifting something too heavy or incorrectly, which would help ensure they have the right posture when they are picking up something.”

Efficiency is another benefit BP has identified from wearables. Before they are sent into the field, BP workers are loaded up with fire-resistant equipment from head to toe: a hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, fire-retardant gloves and hard boots. Add to this a radio, gas monitor and tools, and that leads to one overburdened member of staff.
Future wish list

Tookey is eagerly awaiting a future where heads-up display technology lightens the load, offering consistency, faster decisions, and an improvement to the quality and accuracy of work.

“The smart Android-certified phones are a real revolution but, ideally, I want our workers to a use hands-free device. Putting everything into some sort of head-mounted display will be a big advantage to us. I see that as a few years away yet as it needs to be certified, but it will give potential to drive a lot more work efficiency,” he said.

“I’d like field workers to be able to look around a facility and get information about what’s inside a vessel or what’s happening inside a pump, and see its spec details.

“This is the revolution we’re looking for: the new paradigm that wearables will bring to people working in oil and gas. This technology will drive automatic situational awareness, so our field workers will have the right knowledge at the point of work. Enabling a ‘man down’ to be automatically recognized by colleagues and the control room and location sensing will be really valuable.”

But the current batch of sensors just isn’t up to scratch for BP’s needs. The firm is looking for a range to be designed that is lightweight, seamlessly built-in to clothing or equipment and connected. Reliability in harsh environments and washability are also crucial – as Tookey says: “We’re in such a dirty, horrible environment.”

In an effort to convince hardware manufacturers of the benefits of developing these kinds of wearables, Tookey cites price tags usually associated with current devices common to the oil and gas sector: $1,000 for a radio, $5,000 for an old mobile ‘brick.’

“We already have a track record of spending money on equipment. If it’s swapping those out for just a few sensors, we can afford to spend quite a bit of money, so there’s a lot of margin for the developers. And the current fluctuation in oil prices is making the sector more prone to innovate.”

  • Blaine Tookey was speaking at the Wearable Technology Show in London.
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