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A brave new digital world

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Oilfield Technology,

Rebecca Wallace, Saudi Aramco, explores the digital technologies the company are deploying in the pursuit of sustainability, efficiency and safety.

Wearable technology, self-learning machines and virtual reality programmes that simulate real-life experiences on an oil rig; these are just some of the technologies that Saudi Aramco is deploying, as it aims to become the world’s leading digitalised energy company.

Figure 1. The company's Shallow Water Inspection and Monitoring Robot (SWIM-R) enhances pipeline inspection speed, efficiency and safety.

But digitalisation is more than just gadgets – it is a chance to leverage innovative technologies to become more sustainable, efficient and safe. It is about transforming the ability to provide the world’s energy needs while shrinking the environmental imprint of hydrocarbons. The company's initiatives have led it to having the lowest carbon footprint among top producers in the industry – and as all signs point to a fully digitalised future, we plan on leading the way.

A digital revolution

We are now undergoing the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or 4IR. All of us are experiencing an unprecedented wave of rapid technological advancement that is blurring the lines between the physical and digital and biological spheres; FinTech, AI, Internet of Things, blockchain, quantum computing – as these technologies become irreversibly entrenched in our lives it is not hyperbolic to say that the transformative changes will disrupt almost every sector.

Figure 2. Scientist Kareemuddin M. Shaikh checks the pressure control valve for the pilot plant used for one of the crude to chemicals technologies.

The oil and gas sector is no different. In fact, it has long been one of the most cutting-edge industries when it comes to revolutionising the workplace. From remotely operated unmanned rigs, to drones that can detect leaks, to underwater robots and 4D modelling of the subsurface, the adoption of 4IR technologies has unleashed new resources and efficiencies across the value chain.

A sustainable revolution

What is exciting is that unlike previous industrial revolutions, as we innovate for the future sustainability can be an objective from the outset. We are exploring technologies that can capture and sequester carbon from the atmosphere; turn CO2 into valuable products; advance game-changing solutions that can lower emissions in transportation; or convert crude oil directly to chemicals or hydrogen as the possible future energy source of choice.

Sustainability is part of the company's long-term vision; as demand for energy continues to grow, we want to remain efficient, competitive, delivering tomorrow’s energy while minimising the environmental impact of activities. Central to this vision is how these digital technologies are integrated into applicable operations, from oilfields to offices.

A World Economic Forum “Lighthouse”

Take the Uthmaniyah Gas Plant (UGP). It has been recognised for its leadership in 4IR by the World Economic Forum’s “Manufacturing Lighthouse Program” – the first plant in the oil and gas industry to be recognised by WEF – and was commended for enabling a more efficient, safer, and greener way of working.

Figure 3. Uthamaniyah Gas Plant, which has been recognised for its leadership in 4IR.

Some of the technologies include:

  • Robotics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – flying robots (UAVs), underwater robots (ROVs) and ground robots (crawlers) are used for emergency response, inspection and real time data access, to improve diagnostics, enhance safety and reduce maintenance costs.
  • Wearable technologies – a Digital Helmet empowers field technicians with information, and provides them with the ability to communicate and collaborate in real time. Technicians can also live broadcast their exact view to engineers, who are then able to guide the technician securely using augmented reality technology.
  • Asset performance management – a technology that addresses physical plant assets such as health, reliability, integrity, strategy and safety, to improve reliability and safety of operating assets.
  • Advanced analytics – uses predictive analytics to apply algorithms on asset data that proactively catch anomalies, able to detect performance degradation and notifying users of potential problems.

This sort of 4IR technology has been made possible through a Digital Transformation Program – where the company deploys digital technology across the business to transform the way it operates.

For example, the company's geoscientists use AI to analyse seismic data and pinpoint sweet spots that can minimise drilling risks. Genetic algorithms are used to help understand and classify rocks lithology, thereby reducing uncertainty and enabling efficient and accurate reservoir characterisation. And SpiceRack, a system that harnesses the collective data gathering power of a group of autonomous underwater vehicles, revolutionised the seismic data acquisition industry, especially in challenging underwater locations.

Figure 4. The company built a magnetic resonance tool to create real time 3D profiles of Manifa's reservoir layers.

From upstream to downstream and beyond, Aramco are fully committed to capitalising on these technological breakthroughs. And the hub where this innovation and technology combine, is the 4IR Center (4IRC).

Figure 5. The AI Hub focuses on advanced analytics, Big Data and machine learning solutions, and is where data scientists and field experts are able to visualise and predict the performance of critical company assets.

The 4IRC is over 2500 m2 dedicated to the future of energy. It is a place to explore, ideate, prototype and pilot, before launching into full-scale deployment. It features 270 m2 of video walls, with a total of more than 109 million pixels that split into multiple clusters and zones, including the massive concave video screen of the Artificial Intelligence Hub, on which over 20 operational solutions are displayed.

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