Virtual reality in oil and gas

 By Peter Ward

When you’re working with complex, potentially dangerous facilities, it can be beneficial to have a safe space to practice maintenance, train new staff, and even carry out designs projects. It’s hard to think of a safer place to work than in virtual reality…

As virtual reality headsets have become cheaper, and the technology more advanced and affordable, consumers have seen the use of virtual reality in their every day lives increase dramatically. The majority of this use has been for video games, but businesses have also found distinct advantages to using this immersive technology. By strapping on a headset and interacting with a virtual world, users are able to explore environments in ways that 2-D videos don’t allow. The technology is also said to increase the levels of empathy in humans, which is partly why it is being used increasingly in journalism and documentaries.

To understand the benefits of virtual reality in the energy industry, it is best to use a theoretical example. Imagine an offshore facility, where oil and natural gas is being extracted. These facilities are often in remote areas and difficult and expensive to access. If a company were to hire new people or plan maintenance for that facility, only so much training and preparation could be on land, before people would need to be sent out to the rig to get hands-on experience. But using virtual reality technology, companies can leverage software to recreate the rig exactly, and have recruits and maintenance teams familiarize themselves with the facility before even stepping foot on it surface.

The potential savings of this method of working are clear. The cost to plug employees into virtual reality is much cheaper than to constantly ferry them to remote facilities. There are also safety concerns when less experienced employees are working on a facility, and these can be mitigated if they have a good working knowledge of the location and equipment beforehand. “Virtual reality can transform our understanding of the challenges faced across the energy sector,” said Paul Cantwell, Knowledge Exchange Fellow Oil & Gas, with The University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre. “It’s an invaluable tool for oil, gas and renewables and provides a more tangible understanding of complex technical information and data.”

Samsung's Virtual Reality MWC 2016 Press Conference

In Aberdeen, Scotland, this February, a 3-D ‘Power Wall’ was constructed to showcase the potential uses of virtual reality in the energy sector. The demonstration, at the ITF Technology Showcase, gave visitors an insight into the internal workings of a wind turbine.

“Direct interaction with the 3-D power wall perfectly demonstrates how other sectors, such as automotive and aerospace, have adopted such disruptive technologies to unlock program optimization, reduce project schedules, develop safer practices and improve training and skills. For oil and gas in particular, it can negate the costs and risk associated with offshore design and engineering, thereby cutting costs across the entire lifecycle of an asset,” adds Cantwell. Siemens is just one of the companies that has developed simulation software that can generate precise, three-dimensional representations of facilities. The maintenance capabilities of this software are extraordinary.

VR hardware in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center

“It only takes two clicks for a maintenance technician at a leading global oil and gas company to ‘ship out,’ find himself standing in front of an oil rig’s pump, and check the pump’s condition. His first click is on the menu item ‘COMOS-3D-Viewing.’ His second click is on ‘Navigate’ in a drop-down list. The pump now appears as a realistic 3-D depiction in COMOS Walkinside, which is a 3-D virtual reality model building system that can be used for immersive operator training,” the company writes on its website. After this stage, the technician finds themselves in a virtual model of the facility, able to interact with the environment through an avatar. If the technician clicks on the pump, details of that part’s entire history are displayed. This includes the date the pump was installed, the number of times it has been services and more.

The key to this approach is to combine virtual reality with data collection. If the data can be integrated into the virtual reality then maintenance technicians can make decisions–and act on them–without being physically present. Utility companies have also begun to invest in the technology for maintenance purposes. California-based PG&E is one example of a company in this field aiming to improve operations with the help of virtual reality. Virtual reality has finally become an accepted part of our future technology, after several false starts since the 1980s. Some are still skeptical about its impact beyond video games, but the use cases already found in oil and gas show that it will play an integral part in increasing efficiency and lowering costs in the energy sector in the future.

SEE MORE: Virtual Pipelines by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.