A design engineer at Chevron’s sprawling El Segundo refinery in California used to travel from her office to the plant as many as five times a day to assess operations. Each time, she would bike to where she was needed, suit up with safety gear, assess the problem, and bike back to the office, spending considerable time and energy in the process.
Not anymore. Plant workers outfitted with high-tech goggles equipped with a camera and connected to the internet now beam her in with a video call, allowing her to assess the problem on her computer screen and make the necessary recommendations. The goggles serve as holographic computers for the workers, allowing them to view a video call screen projected within their field of vision.
Chevron is betting these augmented reality devices will save the company millions of dollars in the coming years as it ramps up its use of Microsoft’s HoloLens technology, which was recently developed to support the sort of remote assistance functions now in use in El Segundo. The company this year nearly doubled its inventory to include more than 110 sets, which it’s now rolling out across its many business units to reduce operational downtime and improve productivity.
“We have some experts that travel a half-million miles a year,” said Ed Moore, Chevron’s Enterprise Architecture and Strategy Manager. “There’s a lot of opportunity to make savings.”
Chevron’s rollout comes as oil and gas companies across the board look to adopt Silicon Valley technologies to improve efficiency as they heed the lessons of frugality taught by a two-year oil bust and face increasing competition from electric vehicles and renewable power sources. Tech giants including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are marketing their cloud services to the oil and gas sector, and a host of startups are courting energy companies with applications using artificial intelligence and data science.
Jud Jacobs, Executive Director for research firm IHS Markit’s upstream division, said the energy industry has for years sought to adopt augmented reality — which superimposes a digital image on a user’s view of his or her surroundings — to enable experts to help workers from afar, but it has been slow to develop. Oil and gas facilities, particularly those offshore, have often lacked the wireless internet access needed to use the systems. Stringent safety requirements for devices worn on the job also have posed a design challenge.
That’s beginning to change. Jacobs said the evolution could speed up if companies such as Microsoft continue focus on industrial applications.
“If you have a mainstream technology company that’s going to support this, that will go a long way to accelerate the adoption,” he said.
Already, adoption is increasing. ABI Research, a technology research firm, projects that the energy and utility sector will account for nearly one-fifth of global smart glasses shipments this year. By 2022, ABI expects that the sector, now among the top three industries investing in augmented reality, will spend $18 billion a year on that technology.
A number of other oil and gas companies have gotten into the game. Houston oilfield services company Baker Hughes, for example, has developed what it calls a Smart Helmet with augmented reality glasses for remote assistance. It has more than 20 in use for worldwide customer support.
Baker Hughes, a GE company, estimates that a problem that would have taken some three days to resolve can be fixed in as few as three hours using the technology. In one instance last year, a plant in a remote area of Malaysia had an equipment issue that typically would have required an engineer to fly from Florence, Italy to the nearest airport and travel overland to the site, a process that could take several weeks. Instead, a local service engineer donned the helmet and dialed up the engineering team in Italy to consult on the problem. It was resolved in less than a week.
John Westerheide, Director of Innovation at Baker Hughes, said the company began to develop augmented reality about 2 1/2 years ago as it became commercially viable. His team is working to develop ways to broaden the experience to include multiple users with 3-D screens and dashboards for training applications and design reviews, among other things.
“Ultimately, our goal is to make it as commonplace to interact in a 3-D environment as it is collaborate on a PowerPoint,” Westerheide said.
Chevron, which last year signed a separate, seven-year partnership with Microsoft to use its cloud platform, has deployed the HoloLens technology in the United States as well as Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Experts in Houston and elsewhere have remotely monitored pipeline tests, inspections, oil well completions, equipment building, and other activities that often require in-person assessments.
For the wearer, the HoloLens goggles project an interactive screen showing not only the video call, but also documents and mark-ups from the expert dialed in from afar. With thumbs and forefingers clicking in the air — sort of like air guitar for computers — users can pull up files and scroll through them while working on a project or repair.
By the end of the year, Moore expects more than half of the company’s facilities will have some form of the technology. He sees particular potential in deploying them on offshore rigs, which require helicopter charters and days of travel for engineers.
Right now, the technology doesn’t come cheap: Each set costs about $5,000, but the company estimates that international travel to its facilities costs between $5,000 and $12,000 a trip, and perhaps thousands of dollars more if the destination is particularly difficult to reach.
“We have facilities that we’re not able to get to all the time,” Moore said. “This is something that allows us to put someone in country, remotely.”
Written by: Katherine Blunt, Writer for the Houston Chronicle.