Including remote operations as part of an overall longterm automation strategy is no longer a matter of cost: it has become a necessity. Although the benefits of remote operations, including improved productivity, maximum uptime, lower environmental impact and higher levels of health and safety, are long established, there are other equally compelling reasons for the upsurge in interest.
The oil and gas industry is aiming for an integrated digital operating environment where all disciplines at the engineering office and in the field are unified. This ensures that decisions are made using the same real-time data, providing all parties with a single version of the truth.
The hazardous and extreme nature of some environments (risks from underground earthquakes to offshore hurricanes or new fields in the Arctic or deepwater) often limits the number of personnel they can carry and so the preference is to run unmanned or minimally manned assets with remote access by suitably trained personnel.
Access to skilled personnel, whether production specialists or maintenance engineers, is becoming scarce. Not only can companies not afford to have a full complement of experts residing on each asset, but they are finding it difficult to attract and retain a talented workforce to cover all work disciplines required in a self-contained offshore installation.
Remote collaboration centers
Helping to address many of these challenges are remote collaboration centers, located either at the end-user’s premises or a service partner’s site. The centers allow engineers from many disciplines to access multiple assets in real time, thereby avoiding costly and time-consuming travel to the site. Now, when a problem occurs, experts from anywhere in the world can be “on site” in minutes rather than days.
A key enabler of remote monitoring and management is the digital data and communication infrastructure that gives access to platform data in one place. Extracting the data from disparate sources and making sense of the data has proven difficult. Data are shown in a meaningful format, which means that not just operators but the production managers and the operations managers can make more informed decisions on the process.
Such a center is critical for Shell, which relies on remote access to efficiently and effectively manage its difficult-to-reach assets at Ormen Lange and Draugen. Collaboration between decision makers in three different Shell offices in Norway is critical to operating the plant.
Shell opted for an ABB Ability System 800xA, which is a distributed control system (DCS) that provides a single point of contact for all automation-related issues and incidents, changes, field alerts and configuration management. As a result, together with ABB’s ARMOR concept for secure remote connection, there are 300 fewer person-on-board days per year. The services optimize production, reduce operating costs, increase safety and extend the overall field life cycle, all of which contribute to cost savings and efficient production at the two sites.
Advanced data analytics
The heart of a remote collaboration center is the DCS, which provides a full data visualization screen for platform operators, enabling them to assess any plant issues easily.
Automation vendors are moving toward standardized, less complex, modular systems that offer systemswide integration. For instance, using Edge computing could enable simpler and smaller control systems. This is because more processing is done closer to the installed sensors or machinery and only the information required is sent back to master control stations.
Also, cloud-based technology allows the creation of an ecosystem connecting the workforce in a way that enables it to collaborate anywhere and in real time. For example, moving SCADA to the cloud allows managers and operators to have complete information for their facilities while on the go.
The oil and gas industry has used advanced visualization analytics for decades, but typically in silos. Remote collaboration centers help break down the silos, primarily through the combination of cheaper, faster storage and near limitless computing power on the cloud. This is paving the way for more data-intensive machine-learning methods like neural networks or even deep learning.
Examples include a collaboration with the analytics provider Arundo Analytics on a virtual flowmeter service. The service makes use of existing data to give flowrate estimates where wells do not have multiphase flowmeters. This cloud-based offering exemplifies how digital technology can provide critical data for optimizing a plant in a much more efficient and scalable manner than previously was available, enabling centralization and remote expert services for multiple fields.
The ever-present demand to lower capex and opex is driving designers to examine every component of a platform with the ethos that if it is not necessary, then it is not included.
For instance, unmanned platforms eliminate the need for accommodation and helipads. Also, power from shore has become easier in the past decade with advances in high-voltage direct current and alternating current, which can deliver hundreds of megawatts over hundreds of kilometers.
Moving turbine generators to an onshore location further reduces weight and therefore the size of the actual platform, while lowering the complexities of their associated maintenance. Large gas-driven or renewable energy power generators onshore typically deliver efficiencies of more than 70%—much better than platform- based diesel generators.
Now, via the remote collaboration centers and with the help of digital technology and improved data analytics, new ways of remotely carrying out predictive and preventive maintenance are far more effective. Even when experts are required to visit a platform, the ability to view the asset remotely, in advance of the visit saves considerable time and expense. Typically 80% of an engineer’s time is identifying the issue and the solution and 20% fixing the problem. Either the problem will be fixed remotely or the engineer will be 400% more efficient when arriving on site.
The increased interest in unmanned platforms bodes well for another major technology milestone—the subsea factory. By August 2019 it will be known if the subsea factory is about to become a reality. That is when ABB carries out the final shallow-water test of two 6 MVA variable speed drives together with switchgear, filters and transformers. If successful—and there is no reason to think otherwise—the task of supplying the subsea factory with electrical power up to 100 MW over a distance up to 600 km (373 miles) and depths of up to 3,000 m (9,842 ft) will be a step closer.
The challenges of operating electrical equipment subsea have been likened to sending a satellite into space: once it is up there, it is very hard to get to. Although it is expected to operate reliably for 30 years, the equipment is littered with sensors tracking voltage, current, pressure and temperature among other parameters. The sensors are connected to onshore remote monitoring and communication hubs. Using advanced mathematical models of each component, a handful of operators can quickly see when parameters are drifting and regain control of the entire oil and gas assets.
Software and data, together with online expertise, will help improve safety and maximize production and increase efficiency, reliability and availability. Failure modes will be tackled through predictive algorithms that identify, monitor and avert potential problems.
Implementing a remote collaboration, optimization and operations strategy leads to faster decisions, improved safety and unprecedented levels of efficiency. While technology advancements are game changers, they are not the biggest hurdle to making remote operations a success. That comes from people. Doing things the way they have always been done is no longer an option. Without adapting to new working practices, changing current habits and patterns, and accepting the need for greater collaboration between all departments, remote operations and services are likely to fail.
The Valhall Flank West unmanned wellhead typifies the new approach. It is part of Aker BP’s Wellhead Platform Alliance, which integrates independent framework agreements for engineering and procurement, construction and hookup, electrification, instrumentation, control and telecoms. The alliance stipulates a single project management organization comprising the best personnel from all alliance partners. The intention is to integrate the different company cultures into a unified team with the same goals and incentives based on trust and transparency.
Central to the concept is the distribution of risk, responsibility and reward. By adopting alliances like this, will it be possible to drive innovation in the industry and secure competitiveness?
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