Wearable technology will play a significant role in the oil and gas industry, according to BP’s technology principal, Blaine Tookey, but certification hurdles will have to be overcome first.
Speaking at the Wearable Technology Show in London, Tookey said wearables could aid field workers by giving them easier access to corporate systems and data.
“The Internet of Things is alive and well in the oil and gas industry and has been for many years,” he said. “But then you look at our field workers and they are generally alone with a radio and a gas monitor, so they’ve almost been left behind in the revolution of digital technology.”
Tookey said a range of wearables devices could have a big impact in the industry, from lightweight body-mounted sensors to augmented reality smart glasses, all of which could help to make field engineers safer and more efficient.
“Safety is an area where we can get a key advantage from using wearables,” he said, noting how wearables could be used to monitor engineers' health as well as their external environment.
Tookey said smart glasses and wearable heads-up displays could be used to display real-time information and allow the wearer to input data through voice control. Such a set-up would mean field workers no longer having to lug around bulky ruggedised laptops or return to the office to manually input collected data.
“There’s an enormous opportunity around how we can make this outside worker much more efficient in his operation by having that technology,” Tookey said.
Obstacles to overcome
However, while there are already wearables on the market that can carry out augmented reality, advanced worker location, environmental sensing and safety alerts, Tookey said the challenges of operating in the oil and gas industry has so far stifled their adoption beyond the pilot stage.
“We have some really specific and difficult challenges that are peculiar to oil and gas,” he said. Harsh drilling environments, for example, require very rugged wearables, while metal structures can make setting up wireless networks to serve as the communication backbone of wearable devices very difficult.
But the main hurdle is intrinsic safety certification, which clears electronic devices for use in hazardous flammable environments; something that both consumer and industrial wearables do not have at the moment.
“We need an electronic device to meet the intrinsic safety certification, and that basically means even after it's been worn and used in a ruggedised environment it can’t spark,” said Tookey.
“That intrinsic safety certification means I will not take any consumer wearables onto the plant for anything other than doing pilot testing.”
Tookey said the oil and gas industry has the precursors to wearable technology in the form of cloud infrastructure, big data systems and rugged intrinsically safe Android smartphones that could serve as the data and communications hub for wearables while out in the field.
“One of the real early wins that we are almost at the stage of doing now if we had the certified device is to enable hands-free access to working documents and the transmission of live digital images and video from the guy in the plant at the point of work to someone who’s a thousand miles away,” he said, in reference to the potential of existing head-mounted displays that could be used in the industry.
Beyond smartwatches and fitness bands, wearables have for some time been championed as technology best suited for industrial and enterprise use. And with the likes of Intel working on clever wearable headsets, the trend is not likely to go away.
This opens up opportunities for startups and established technology companies willing to take the gamble and make devices suited for very specific uses but aimed at markets with significant buying power.
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