When Chris Blackford started pitching Sky-Futures, the drone company he had co-founded, to oil and natural gas companies, there initially was not much interest.
The London-based start-up flies unmanned aircraft around offshore platforms, oil rigs and other sites, collecting high-resolution videos and images that can spot potential infrastructure problems and, according to Mr. Blackford, cost roughly 80 percent less than traditional inspections.
But for many in the energy industry, the technology was still new and untested. That started to change after Talisman Energy, the Canadian oil and gas explorer, gave the fledgling company a chance on one of its offshore sites in 2012, leading to significant time and cost savings. Other energy companies’ reluctance then quickly turned into interest and, eventually, a growing demand.
“If you name a global oil company, we’ve probably worked for them,” said Mr. Blackford, whose clients include Chevron and BP. Since 2014, the start-up has branched out from mere drone inspections, offering clients access to sophisticated data analytics and algorithms that examine gigabytes of sensor information, for onshore and offshore sites, to flag potential problems that cannot be detected by the human eye.
“In the last six to 12 months, we’ve seen a spike in people’s interest in the data that we can bring to the table,” he said, adding that his team can, for instance, analyze the amount of corrosion to be expected on an oil rig over the coming year. “We can take the data, measure it and look for trends.”
These tech innovations are part of a renewed push to bring the digital world into the oil and natural gas industry.
Where engineers often manually monitor oil wells, companies like Exxon Mobil and Petrobras, the Brazilian energy company, seek to automate these processes with tiny sensors that cost a fraction of what they did even five years ago. Whirring supercomputers — some more than 70,000 times as powerful as an everyday laptop — can quickly crunch geological and seismic data, helping energy makers find savings amid low oil and natural gas prices.
And more advanced efforts — like rig-inspecting drones and even autonomous vehicles — are also being tested as the sector tries to catch up with other areas of the economy that have more readily embraced technological advances. The reams of digital data collected from offshore platforms, refineries and oil rigs, among other sites both onshore and offshore, may better detect energy deposits, find more-efficient ways to produce refined oil products like gasoline and even predict where future breakdowns, which can force costly and unexpected shutdowns, are likely to happen.
“I.T. is back in fashion,” said Kenneth Vareide, director of business enhancement at DNV GL, a Norwegian consulting firm that predicts digital investments can improve the efficiency of energy companies’ operations by as much as 20 percent. “Companies already have taken out a lot of costs from their operations. Digital offers a new opportunity that really hasn’t been tapped yet.”
For many in the energy industry, such predictions may sound all too familiar.
Over the last two decades, companies have put hundreds of millions of dollars into new digital technologies, often with limited results. Around 2008, when oil hit a record $147 a barrel, analysts said many oil majors spent big on data centers and advanced software programs, only to see such projects be outpaced by those from IBM, Amazon and Microsoft, which could offer similar computing power at a fraction of the cost.
The recent protracted slump in global energy prices — the average oil price is still down about 60 percent since 2014 — has focused minds on more basic restructuring, with job cuts and asset sales taking precedence over sensors and data science. A longstanding skepticism about untested technology also has pushed the industry to the bottom of the class compared with other sectors when handling all things digital, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
“In the 2000s, resistance to technology was everywhere,” said Nate Clark, an energy partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Houston. “People tried to do too much, too fast.”
Despite some continuing resistance, the industry’s technological credibility has been burnished by the recent shale revolution, which is driven by tech advances in drilling techniques, data crunching and other improvements aimed at making the sector more nimble as global oil and natural gas prices fluctuate. Roughly two-thirds of energy companies, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young, the consulting firm, have spent at least $100 million on data analytics over the last two years, a rise over previous years.
With an eye still on cutting costs, companies are nevertheless increasing their commitments to digital. In Southern France, Total recently tripled the computing power of its in-house supercomputer, making it the 11th most powerful machine in the world, according to Top500, a data provider. And in Houston, BP is spending $100 million by 2018 on its own supercomputer to help engineers better analyze the company’s energy assets around the world.
“The amount of data is like a tsunami coming at us,” said Keith Grey, who runs BP’s supercomputer center. “We’re gaining advantages that will be hard for others to try and match.”
Finding new ways of using that data also has become a priority.
In Western Australia, Woodside Energy, one of the nation’s largest oil and natural gas producers, has placed roughly 200,000 sensors throughout its $10 billion liquefied natural gas plant. The goal was to pull together real-time data that could flag potential problems before they caused major disruptions.
After recently facing a potential buildup of gas that threated to shut the plant, the Australian company not only used its sensor data and cloud computing power from Amazon and IBM to forestall the problem, but also mined the digital information to forecast when future shutdowns could occur.
“It’s easier than ever to leverage this type of data,” said Richard Holsman, global head of the energy, digital and technology practice at the consultancy Accenture, which has worked with Woodside Energy. “What they learned is that they can avoid failures by taking a different approach to the data they already have.”