by Bianca Wright

How VR is changing the oil and gas industry in the Middle East

Dec 14, 2019
Augmented RealityInternet of ThingsIT Strategy

Virtual reality applications are gaining traction in a sector with big safety and training issues.

oil wells at sunrise 100838104
Credit: Thinkstock

While consumer uptake of virtual reality has been relatively slow, industrial and commercial applications of the technology are gaining ground, with oil and gas enterprises in the Middle East starting to deploy a variety of collaboration, safety and training systems.

The oil and gas sector is notorious for its complex and detailed health and safety requirements and the need for continuous up-to-date training to ensure compliance. Wide-scale deployment of VR technology has been seen across the value chain in the sector, according to GlobalData, a data and analytics company.

Global companies like Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP were quick to adopt immersive technologies in the field and have invested in and developed VR and AR (augmented reality) solutions, and oil and gas leaders in the Middle East have followed suit.

IoT meets VR for safety and diagnostics

Use of VR and AR intersect with opportunities made possible by the internet of things (IoT), networks of connected devices that collect information and provide a stream of data that can be analyzed and acted on. Industrial connected systems have been around for years, and IoT is being implemented in the Middle East in smart cities and a variety of other applications.

VR is primarily being used from a simulation and modeling perspective in oil and gas applications, explains Ravindra Puranik, an analyst at GlobalData. The technology enables the creation of immersive views of real-world facilities that can be used to refine the design and layout of oil and gas facilities.

“Visual imagery collected from LiDAR and cameras mounted on drones or other platforms can be processed to create these 3D models of real-world locations. This, however, requires trained personnel with expertise in software tools to create these views,” Puranik says.

Digital twin technology — virtual replicas of physical devices that data scientists and IT pros can use to run simulations — can incorporate VR and allow businesses to simulate implementations of real-world scenarios for making informed decisions. For example, an oil company can simulate a rig environment in emergency conditions to allow workers to train in how to handle the situation, or a new deployment in a gas pipeline can be modelled and tested in VR to determine key decisions in its implementation.

North Sea-based operators, including Equinor, BP, Shell, and Wintershall, are creating digital twins of their respective fields to manage their project lifecycles and identify key operational milestones.

3D visualisation aids geoscientists

Saudi Aramco,  meanwhile, is developing a tool to generate 3D visualisations of its oilfields to help geoscientists to understand reservoir characteristics. The system simplifies communication across multiple teams based in diverse geographies, thereby improving collaboration, Puranik says.

VR, though, may be most widely used for training in the oil and gas industry. VR can offer visually stimulating environments for trainees to understand the environments and processes in an oil and gas operation without being exposed to hazardous situations

Globally, Shell is using VR technology to design around 12,000 different types of virtual training courses based on various oil and gas functions to impart relevant knowledge to its trainees.

The Aveva Group, which has worked with companies such as the Kuwait Oil Company in the Middle East, says that the use of VR training can reduce time-to-value and costs of on-the-job training by between 30 percent and 40 percent, reduce post-plant shutdown start-up time by up to 20 percent and reduce the cost of maintenance by as much as 3 percent per year.

Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) uses Aveva’s SimSci EYESIM Immersive Virtual Reality technology to train employees across a range of needed skills and health and safety compliance areas.

The system lets KOC import CAD/CAM designs laser scans and photographic surveys to create a realistic interactive 3D environment. The VR platform can link control room, field and maintenance operators, and the application’s modular architecture is designed to allow data transfer with distributed control systems.

There are a number of benefit to such systems, according to a Deloitte report on AR and VR in the oil and gas industry. “Delivering virtual reality-based, on-demand training sessions that leverage in-person walk-throughs, computers, and other advances can improve knowledge retention and reduce traditional classroom training costs.,” Deloitte says. “Highly realistic oil and gas VR training for dangerous situations can test safety and compliance protocols and improve procedural execution in the event of an emergency safety incident.”

VR for effective simulation

Meanwhile, some of the leading Middle East oil and gas players are deploying VR projects for a variety of scenarios.

ExxonMobil’s Qatar research unit, for example, has deployed a VR platform co-developed with EON Reality to upskill their employees and prepare them to tackle possible emergency situations. The system allows for the development of complex models that include interactive 3D objects such as rotating valves, push-buttons and active gauge, as well as sensory conditions including tactile feedback, odors, vibration and wind simulation.

Saudi Aramco also worked with Eon to develop different VR applications including a rock outcrop simulator, a seismic simulation program, and a hydraulic fracturing job site configuration system. The simulations can be displayed on laptops or large displays such as 3D powerwalls or immersive four-walled setups.

Capital investment is necessary to set up the needed infrastructure for creating such virtual environments, Puranuk says. Companies also have to decide whether they should refurbish existing training centres or construct from scratch – both these approaches have their own advantages and challenges.

“It might not be possible to convert all existing training centres into state-of-the-art VR training rooms,” Puranuk says. “On the other hand, constructing new training centres is very expensive and time consuming as well. All these factors would be influential in deploying VR tech for training purposes.”