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Smart tech, robots and digital twins set to boost oil industry

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Technology that would once have seemed the stuff of science fiction is helping oil and gas businesses bounce back from the impact of Covid-19.

The oil industry has a long history. For more than 5000 years, the primitive lamps of our ancestors were lit with the rich black tar of unrefined oil, which continued to keep early campfires and battlefields ablaze until the 18th century.

It was prior to and during the Industrial Revolution that oil exploration, extraction and refining began to truly take shape. Demand for energy grew and the oil industry rose to the challenge, providing light, heat and power to the masses.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the inception of major players that still dominate the sector today, but the industry from here innovated at a rate nothing short of exponential. And although it’s clear that we are currently experiencing a period of turbulence, I have no doubt that the oil and gas industry can bounce back bigger – and better – than ever before.

For example, whether we’re talking about TVs or toasters, ‘smart’ seems to be the new industry buzzword. In my opinion, any opportunity for innovation, and therefore streamlining, should be welcomed, especially from an investor’s standpoint. I’m not ashamed to say that I embrace the smart revolution. Luckily for us in the oil industry, pipelines are the next thing set to get a smart upgrade.

Oil investment companies are always looking for new innovations to help push optimisation. Last month, a Silicon Valley tech firm signed an agreement with Japanese steel firm MISI to work on R&D for infrastructural components. These pipelines will have the capability to track and capture accurate data about the environment both inside and outside pipes. This has applications in the upkeep of the pipes, but can also be used for environmental monitoring.

Whilst the ‘smart’ buzzword is positively modern, the next exciting upgrade to the industry sounds incredibly futuristic. The idea of a wearable exoskeleton may sound like something out of a 1980s sci-fi film, but its applications are very much present-day. In fact, Utah-based robotics firm Sarcos is launching one to the commercial market this year. The Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton will boast a 200lb (90kg) maximum weight and require only minimal training on the part of the operator. This is exciting, as it has applications in a range of tasks from warehouse work to construction. The oil and gas sector falls very much in the wheelhouse of the XO’s abilities.

The Guardian XT, due to be released next year, is Sarcos’s newest invention. The teleoperated robot is controlled by a wearable VR exoskeleton, and it is, astonishingly, able to carry out most intricate and dextrous human tasks with precision. This can even occur at height, allowing the operator to keep a safe distance. In what’s a high-risk industry, suits like these may soon be commonplace on rigs around the world.

Extended reality (XR) covers any technology that extends and enhances our current reality. Things like virtual and augmented reality fall under this umbrella. Far from the gaming sector, there are applications for VR and AR in almost every market, and the oil and gas sector is no exception.

Digital twin technology, for example, is a way of virtually visualising a process or environment prior to construction. This makes the process highly efficient in terms of both person-hours and money. Issues can be identified and solved pre-production, and engineers trained on machinery before being sent offshore. This technology has, understandably, been picked up for training, production refinement and risk assessment by some of the industry’s biggest names. As we all know, streamlining processes equates to streamlined finances in the end!

Thanks to the extreme unpredictability of the last 12 months due to the impact of Covid-19, the oil industry, like many others, has experienced an instability the likes of which we’ve never seen before. New technologies, however, hold a great deal of promise. Ideas once restricted to the confines of the imagination are now becoming reality. The solution is simple: innovation is king. The more we can push ahead and innovate, the more likely we can survive and, more importantly, thrive.

Henry Berry is Director at Tristone Holdings.

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