BP’s troubleshooters here received a call for help from colleagues in Azerbaijan.
Sand was invading oil wells from the rocks outside. To avoid damage, the operators were choking the wells back, reducing revenues.
Two tech-savvy specialists, Prad Thiruvenkatanathan, a research scientist, and Tommy Langnes, a sand expert, came up with a novel fix. They used fiber-optic cable to gather the sounds coming from the wells deep in the earth. Inspired by apps like Shazam that recognize the voices of pop stars, they figured how to distinguish the sonic signature of sand from other sounds, like flowing oil. They also installed computers on the production platforms to sift staggering volumes of data coming from the wells down to manageable levels.
Using these tools, BP
can identify where sand is coming in and patch the breaches instead of choking down the whole well. The flows from one well have already increased by nearly 50 percent, potentially a huge gain if the technology
is rolled out through BP’s global network, where sand is a common problem. They are already using a similar tool to detect leaks and other potential hazards.
“It is just like your iPhone,” Mr. Langnes said. “We have built the phone. We have a couple of apps installed. Now the R&D team is working on new apps to install on the digital platform.”
The oil industry has long been of two minds when it comes to high technology.
and Italy’s Eni use powerful supercomputers to crunch data from sound waves into images of petroleum deposits in the ground. Yet the industry has been resistant to change in other areas, like the process of producing oil.
On weather-battered offshore platforms in Britain’s North Sea, for instance, technicians still walk around with “big pieces of paper in the rain, wind,” said Claire Day, a BP
operations engineer. “It is not an ideal way to work.”
Change, though, is coming as companies
and Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, embrace technology
to help cut costs. Anders Brun, a consultant in the oil and gas practice at McKinsey & Company, says analyzing huge amount of data to optimize processes like oil production and automate activities like drilling is the logical next step.
Before oil prices plunged in 2014, Mr. Brun said, gaining access to natural resources rather than cost-cutting was the priority. Now the heads of the big oil companies, inspired by what they see in areas like banking, retailing and mining, want to do the same. McKinsey estimates that through activities like using big data to analyze the performance of various production platforms, oil companies
can improve their profits by up to $11 per barrel, or $300 billion a year by 2025.
“The potential is quite staggering,” he said.
are forging ahead in some key areas. BP, for instance, is experimenting with automating drilling on natural gas wells in a new field in Oman. BP
would like the driller’s role to be more like that of an airplane pilot, who oversees the computers actually fine-tuning the plane.
Leigh-Ann Russell, a drilling executive, said that automation would make operations safer by taking people off installations and out of harm’s way. By reducing the chances of human error that she said was responsible for most safety incidents, automating drilling rigs would also improve business performance, because a lot of waste “is often caused by human error as well.”
are also very gingerly experimenting with technology
that can help remove people from offshore platforms, which produce much of the world’s oil. Any job that can be moved to land represents a big saving because offshore workers are highly paid and need to be housed, fed and rotated every few weeks by helicopter.
recently moved a drilling rig 350 miles across the North Sea, the three-person team responsible for positioning the vessel, remained on land. They worked from the company’s hub in Aberdeen, Scotland, through a remote positioning and monitoring system. BP
estimates that keeping teams “on the beach” will save $20,000 on each of these moves.
The employees that remain on the rigs may receive cellphones and computer tablets insulated to avoid sparks that could set off explosions. The intention is for them to use these devices to click through tasks like maintenance checks, enter data and hear back quickly if something is wrong.
“Your training burden is massively reduced as well,” said Ms. Day. “No one has taught any of us how to use Facebook or WhatsApp. You just pick them up.”
Still, some observers think it will not be easy to make radical changes, especially on offshore platforms, where workers may think they have enough to do without learning new tricks.
Andrew Tidey, global head of performance improvement at energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, said that people in control rooms might already have more information than they could manage.
“Is the real issue information or is it human behavior?” he asked. “We will see how that plays out.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 17, 2017, on Page A12, in The International New York Times.