The future of the oil industry: Evolution of the automation process

Jesper Olavi

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency.” A sentence that Bill Gates once said, and which still applies to our digitalized world, maybe more than ever. What individuals experience in a smaller environment, for example through an automated robot vacuum cleaner that makes our lives easier, is taken to another dimension when it comes to corporate businesses.

An increasing number of sectors and businesses invest in new technologies to make their actions more efficient, for example through automated processes. One such sector that has especially during the past few years, put their focus on automatic control is the oil and gas industry. Safety systems are thereby an element that shouldn’t be underestimated when securing critical infrastructure such as oil rigs.

From men to machines

In 2015 the number of oil rigs started to decrease rapidly. Consequently, the field needed fewer workers for their machines. However, when the number of oil rigs began to bounce back towards the end of 2016, the number of workers employed by the industry, contrary to expectations, didn’t grow. The reason for this static employability rate was the strong automation of the oil and gas sector. Companies saw the opportunities that came along with the new development. This change had many positive outcomes, especially in terms of safety and efficiency. The automated heavy machines can now undertake tasks that were once highly precarious and laborious for human workers, such as the process of drilling. By investing in automation, the already weakened oil and gas industry could provide an even better standard for their employees and customers while reducing operational costs.

The role of safety systems in automation processes

While the replacement and upgrade of machines is often the first step in the process of automation, these are not the only factors that help to improve executions and contribute to the employees’ health and safety. One significantly important element are safety systems, which includes cameras and speakers as well as special sensors. The combination of features like access control, thermal imaging and video analytics can provide human-caliber observational reach across multiple cameras and sites simultaneously.

With the possibility to install explosion-protected cameras in critical or hazardous areas of the oil and gas site, it is not necessary for people to manually review the process or the machines. Based on intelligent video analytics, disruptions can be detected, and an alarm raised from the camera. The company grounds of whole oil reserves are often enormous and monitoring every part by operators would be time consuming and require greater man labour. Therefore, strategically placed IP cameras integrated with smart analytics software enables fewer operators to monitor larger installations. Putting that into perspective, the Sinopec (Cao Feidian) Commercial Crude Oil Reserve Base, which is the third largest commercial crude oil reserve base in China, is composed of 32 large floating-roof crude oil tanks, oil transfer pump stations and firehouses on a total area of 100,000 m3. Securing such an area without cameras would be almost impossible, which is why the Sinopec oil site has installed a system of several network cameras that are based on open IP standards. This system also consists of streaming media servers, video storage servers and TV surveillance terminals to store and process the huge amount of data from the whole surrounding. The application of cameras based on thermal imaging help to monitor the height of crude oil in the tank as well as the movements of personnel in the area around the tank.

In other cases thermals can be used for long-range detection, but also detect leaks in pipes, valves etc. Especially in areas where leaks are harder to detect, the thermal feature of the cameras can be crucial. For instance, it allows personnel to recognize liquid leaks on a water surface due to the different emissivity of oil and water.

The same applies for changes in pressure and temperature. The pressure drop gives a temperature drop. This can be detected by a thermal camera, which can then send out an alarm.

Reacting quickly, but only when truly necessary

As these are very sensitive installations, it is even more crucial to ensure security protection and management for preventions are in place. The ability to react immediately is also essential when considering emergencies within this field. Cameras and alarm can be linked and in case of danger, such as fire or intrusion, an emergency message supported by video footage and the location is sent to the relevant person. This way, it becomes easier for operators to act quickly without losing precious time. Video analytics can trigger alarms based on motion detection, smoke detection, hard hat detection, etc. Running analytics using edge technology reduces the need for manual supervision. This produces less data on the network and decreases the storage space needed. Operators can therefore concentrate on the actual incidents or process steps.

The combination of digital eyes and intelligent technology can also help to cut down false alarms. There are several sensors connected to a process monitoring system, which can be used to detect failures of the machinery. With the ability to integrate network cameras into the current safety system, another layer of safety can be added to the whole industry process. This increases its efficiency and also safeguards people’s health and safety.

If an alarm message has been sent out, the person who is sitting in front of the surveillance monitor can see the affected area on the screen and can decide which actions to undertake: Is it necessary to call security or fire brigade or is it a false alarm (e.g. just an animal that entered the premises). If nothing exceptional appears on the screen he can order the maintenance of the sensors. Thus, the system also stays updated.

With the latest camera technology comes also benefits from extreme low-light performance and efficient encoding which keeps down storage needs without compromising the high-resolution image quality, electronic image stabilization and the ability to run additional analytics on the video stream.

The human factor in automation

Although these devices can make our lives easier and safer by undertaking difficult or hazardous tasks, the human factor is not eliminated. In the end, it is still a human being that sits in front of surveillance monitors, weighs the severity of a situation and makes the final decision. This is necessary when it comes to critical decisions such as remotely shutting down the site or parts of the system. But especially for the oil and gas industry an automated system can be a helpful investment. This extension of intelligent devices is crucial to increase efficiency as well as the employees’ working conditions. Ultimately, we should ask ourselves this: Why send an employee into a potentially hazardous area to verify a condition that can be as easily monitored from a safe environment? Especially when the field is a dangerous environment such as an oil rig.

More information about how Axis solutions can support the:

Automation of the oil & gas industry