06 Jun 2022

The move from local control to remote operations of Oil & Gas facilities

Remote operations of Oil Gas facilities

In the Oil & Gas industry, there is a great potential to apply digital technologies and agile processes to increase production efficiency and plant integrity, while minimising environmental impact and improving the safety of the people involved.

For oil and gas projects to be economically viable, costs need to come down and production and efficiencies need to go up. This has always represented great challenges for oil and gas field developments and requires innovative ideas beyond traditional thinking. One of those innovative solutions is implementing the concept of remote monitoring and control of facilities from an integrated remote centre, usually the head office. Over the past few years, many industries began adopting certain remote capabilities and developed a roadmap to autonomous operations. Each company had their own reason to do so and their own timeline—some charged in full force, while others have been doing it slowly and in piecemeal. Reasons for implementing new technologies in automation and digital systems have centred around achieving higher productivity, waste reduction, addressing labor shortages and replacing unhealthy, dangerous and repetitive tasks. However, what we did not foresee, is how almost overnight, a world-wide pandemic would push itself to the top of the list of reasons.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced social distancing, travel restrictions and offshore activities. Oil and gas activities were suddenly more challenging, including start up, commissioning and operations in onshore and offshore, as many operators found themselves grappling with reduced staff, or the requirement to maintain a certain distance from their colleagues, or they are simply not even able to travel to the site. COVID-19 has shown us how essential it is for industries to have the ability to perform and support tasks remotely. Developing a digital asset can allow them to optimise operations not only in normal times, but especially in such uncertain times. The implementation of digital solutions can secure cost reductions in various areas of field lifecycle and enable remote operations to address current challenges.

Emerging technologies in today’s market have the capability and capacity to enable such kind of solution. It embraces digital solutions that facilitate integrated, intelligent operations to enable the integration of people and technology and execute remote operation in enhanced knowledgeable environment. However, the concept of remote operations is not new for offshore fields. Many of the offshore facilities are already on-stream and those facilities have been designed “normally unmanned”. However, remote monitoring and control of a fully fledged unmanned facility is not common in the oil and gas industry. There is an increasing trend around the world to adopt the remote operation approach to reduce cost and enhance safety of operations.

Implementing a remote operation concept for a normally unmanned facility requires close coordination between engineering, maintenance and operations to ensure that the facility’s design covers operational and maintenance needs in a safe and efficient manner. The design of remote control fields should go through many design gate reviews and safety studies such as HAZID, HAZOP, SIL, etc. and conduct a risk assessments to address hazards that could pose risks to the facility and people during remote operation of the facilities. The conventional philosophy of operations to be updated and emergency response philosophy must be detailed and address all emerging challenges of remote operations.

Operations in Oil Gas

There are 3 maturity levels of oil and gas remote operations:

  1. Remote Monitoring with real-time operations data available and replicated at head office for monitoring only, in addition to data related to asset health, diagnostics and performance monitoring, and KPI. In many cases, we see remote centres have high-level control for emergency responses to overcome local operations.
  2. Remote Control where the main control in remote areas and facilities are fully unmanned, field control is used as a backup control centre. Control and monitoring functions shall be designed to operate remotely without the need for operator support at the field such that the entire facility shall be designed to start up with a single pushbutton concept.
  3. Autonomous Operations, are the ultimate goal of owner-operators. Today, just a few autonomous plants are under operations globally. Remote operation helps operators to build new knowledge and see how to remotely optimise production. In addition, when the actionable insights are brought into the continuous closed-loop process, it acts like a self-driving car, autonomously optimising production and emergency response. In the near future, we are moving towards closed-loop automation, a process that allows systems to recognise and respond to events without human intervention. Today’s efforts are centralised on levels 1 & 2 while autonomous operations are the future ambition.

Remote monitoring (level 1) enables the deployment of smart and intelligent solutions incorporating state-of-the-art digital applications and visualisation tools to bring more collaboration and visibility across various sites. This brings improvements in operations management, supply chain management, asset performance optimisation and health, safety and environment management, increasing overall efficiency across the business. This will facilitate diagnoses and analysis to enhance equipment performance benchmarking. It allows predictive and better-planned maintenance and identifies profitability and process improvement opportunities. This will enable decision-makers at all levels to access relevant and timely information to take action in line with corporate objectives. Central remote monitoring solutions support the cascading of KPIs across the various business units so that the individual business unit contributions to overall business goals are easily analysed and understood. A great example of this is ADNOC Panorama; a central remote monitoring for entire assets productions and operations.

The design of the remote control field (Level 2) should address many additional areas. The design and selection of field instrumentation shall take into consideration the requirement of the zero-manning concept, thus ensuring accurate and enough measurement signals to the ICSS to enable safe and efficient monitoring, control and operation of the entire facilities. Also, a high level of automation is required which should take into consideration the requirements of diagnostics, predictive and preventive maintenance functions, communication infrastructure and networks, etc. Motor operated valves represent an essential element for the remote operation, where they shall be utilised to help the start-up sequence to progress from the ongoing step to the next step of the sequence and switch out equipment and isolation. CCTV shall be provided to different areas of the facilities to ensure safe conditions for remote operation. Telecom systems to minimise the site visits. CCTV cameras shall be AI-powered and provide a 360-degree view of all areas. Cybersecurity is another area to be addressed deeply.

The digital revolution and current communications technology have opened the door for better remote operations of oil and gas facilities regardless of the physical location of operators. This enables access to information and operational activities in real-time, 24/7/365. This shift promoted a new way of working, through better use of data from the digital world to inform operators about the process and site conditions, with decreased reliance on routine site rounds on the facility; thus improving safety risk for personnel.

The system requirements for remote operation and integrated intelligent operations begin with components which are already in common practice, such as integrated control and safety systems, and the automation of valves, MOVs, motors, and other operations in process plants. Beyond these basics, extra attention is needed to ensure sufficient numbers and correct types of field instruments are provided to enable remote monitoring and control of the facility as well as monitoring of the performance and degradation of the machinery and equipment and avail single push button concept to start up the facility and hydrocarbon products reaches to interface tie-in stations to be feasible. Tools for data analytics and remote monitoring and diagnostics to enhance equipment performance, and allow predictive and better-planned maintenance should be in place.

Further considerations have to do with designing spare equipment with manual and automatic changeover for plant availability without requiring equipment disassembly or other actions requiring human intervention.

On-site physical presence has been the norm for operations for so many years since the industrial revolution. Shifting operations away from the centre of the plant, and moving to a virtual presence of operators as the primary mode of interaction and operation is certainly a significant change in ways of working. While this change relies on new digital technologies to address new operational practices, there are potentially positive benefits that can result from this change. If managed appropriately, the cultural shift could result in higher overall productivity and effectiveness for the personnel, as it may bring increased job satisfaction and a tangible sense that their experience and skills are being utilised more effectively by using the modern technologies for remote operation.

Cultural change is an important factor for the success of remote operations and we should give it careful attention prior to commissioning and start-up of this project.

To unlock the full rewards of remote innovative solutions, an optimum design of the operational environment with respect to human factors, task analysis, and technology is required. The remote control design needs to reflect people, processes, organisation and technology.

This article was authored and published by Wassim Ghadban, Vice President, Global Innovation and Digital Engineering

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