Oil and gas companies operate in dynamic and complex environments, where they face constant challenges especially in terms of supply and demand. The time has come to evaluate, adapt and embrace new technological initiatives.
Energy companies have been adopting digital technologies for years, helping to increase the recovery of fossil resources, improve production processes, reduce costs and improve safety. The oil and gas sector has a relatively long history with digital technologies, notably in upstream, and significant potential remains for digitalisation to enhance operations further. Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, as its commonly known is driving the tectonic shift.
Exploration and production (E&P) have traditionally been the most profitable part of the oil and gas sector, and this is the area where digital technologies have tended to have the largest impact. Technologies that can unlock more volumes of oil or natural gas or make production processes more efficient are prime candidates for research, development and deployment. The upstream industry has pioneered the complex task of processing extremely large datasets generated by seismic surveys of land and oceans, for example, in order to delineate the outline and structure of reservoirs to help optimise their development. Processing this data requires some of the world’s most powerful computers.
The initial focus of digitalisation in the upstream oil and gas industry in the future is most likely to be on expanding and refining the range of existing digital applications already in use. For example, miniaturised sensors and fibre optic sensors in the production system could be used to boost production or increase the overall recovery of oil and gas from a reservoir. Such sensors could also be employed to measure environmental performance, such as the efficiency or emissions intensity of operations. Other examples are the use of automated drilling rigs and robots to inspect and repair subsea infrastructure and to monitor transmission pipelines and tanks. Drones could also be used to inspect pipelines (which are often spread over extended areas) and hard-to-reach equipment such as flare stacks and remote, unmanned offshore facilities.
Within the Arabian Gulf, for many years, Saudi Aramco Upstream has been capitalising on Industry 4.0 to find breakthroughs that will increase discovery and recovery, reduce costs, enhance safety and protect the environment. From the use of autonomous underwater vehicles to revolutionise seismic data acquisition, to employing artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, IT smart agents and big data mining to place wells more effectively and help correct abnormal performance in real time, Saudi Aramco has charted its leadership path in the upstream digitalisation arena.
Saudi Aramco has capitalised on digital development in the surface and subsurface well technologies to optimise fields’ development and operation strategies. This is being done through four major projects: a real-time drilling operation, the real-time geosteering operation centre, intelligent field and an event solution field development optimisation centre.
One of the major objectives of these projects is to integrate and leverage on multidisciplinary team collaboration and real-time field data through all the phases of field development and management life cycle, from drilling, geosteering, intelligent completions, production, and reservoir management to further initiating development plans and building and updating the static, dynamic and business models.
Analysing data and performance
In the longer term, the potential exists to improve the analysis and processing of data, such as the large, unstructured datasets generated by seismic studies. Rapid analysis of data can lead to faster decisions and increase the operating time of drilling rigs, wells and facilities, thereby reducing delays when executing new projects. As a result, this should also lead to lower costs and the more efficient use of capital.
A further option is the use of AI, which is still in its infancy but offers a great deal of promise for upstream operations. AI could be used to analyse well performance, troubleshoot underperforming fields, suggest corrective actions and even deploy robots to carry out tasks. It could also enhance reservoir modelling, and thus aid operations by rapidly detecting and correcting suboptimal production behaviour. Saudi Aramco is also tapping into AI and deep learning processes that determine rock types and geological features for better well placement and field development.
For instance, Saudi Aramco has launched GeoDRIVE – a seismic imaging software package designed for exascale computing. This is improving image-processing efficiency by 90%, especially helpful in areas with challenging and complex geology.
Another cutting edge technological initiative championed by Saudi Aramco is TeraPOWERS. Saudi Aramco’s proprietary TeraPOWERS, the world’s first trillion-cell reservoir simulator, will allow Saudi Aramco engineers to visualise the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula and Red Sea to learn what is happening between fields in one enormous model using the reservoir simulation grid. From Dhahran, Saudi Aramco can remotely direct drilling of horizontal wells in Shaybah, steering a drill-bit through miles of rock to within a few feet of its target.