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Insights: Introduction to remote operations for the sand management sector

The recent Covid pandemic had a major impact on the adoption of remote technologies. Suddenly all sectors were forced to embrace it, even if they felt they were not ready before. According to McKinsey ‘digital adoption has taken a quantum leap at both the organizational and industry’. The surge in focus towards remote technologies was particularly evident in the energy sector during this time. Every stage of the production flow, including sand management, was forced to undertake an internal audit and assess how services could continue despite travel restrictions and different regulations between countries. Energy companies now recognize the advantages associated with autonomous platforms remain even after the pandemic. A large amount of this interest centers around the potential of remote technologies to help the sector become more efficient and safer.
This article will examine the concept of remote operations, discuss the different ‘levels’ of automation and present the main steps that are needed in order for the concept of remote operations to be fully embraced.

The different levels of remote operations

The scale of remote technologies is more like a spectrum with different levels of ‘remote autonomy’ available depending on the technology itself. The further up the scale, the less human control/input is required. Starting at level 0, where humans have full operational control, the spectrum can go as far as level 6. At this advanced stage, the technology is fully automated.

There are several different standards for automation such as Sheridan’s Classification. However, for the purpose of this article we will refer to the levels of autonomy from the US Navy Office of Naval Research. Currently there is no industry standard for the levels of automation within oil and gas, but they all tend to follow an outline such as the one from the US Navy Office of Naval Research. Its levels are classified as follows:

• Level 1 – Human Operated – all activity within the system is a direct result of human-initiated control inputs.

• Level 2 – Human Assisted – the system can perform activity in parallel with human input. However, the system has no ability to act without accompanying human input.

• Level 3 – Human Delegated – The system can perform limited control activity on a delegated basis.

• Level 4 – Human Supervised – The system can perform a wide variety of activities given top-level permissions or direction by a human.
• Level 5 – Mixed Initiative – Both the human and the system can initiate behaviors based on sensed data.

• Level 6 – Fully Autonomous – The system requires no human intervention to perform any of its designated activities.

It’s important to note that at all levels or remote operations strict security requirements are in place to prevent any risk of exposing the offshore process control network to the business network. This is a step actively taken to prevent a security breach by the outside world.

The benefits of remote operations

Remote operations have been in existence for over 50 years; however, in the energy sector they have gone through a slow adoption process. Embracing fully autonomous operations will bring about many positive changes for the sector.

1. Safety
Remote operation removes manual handling elements and people from hazardous zones. When the physical distance between operators and heavy machinery increases, the benefits from an HSE point of view also increase substantially. The end goal of remote operations is to have offshore technologies completely controlled remotely by onshore operators at a Level 5. This will remove travel hazards and exposure to harmful substances associated with offshore installations. While the platform infrastructure may not yet be equipped to embrace remote technologies at a Level 6 standard, the industry is gradually moving up the scale. Looking holistically at the energy sector, Level 2 is roughly where the majority of the platforms are at present. However, some other platforms, such as Equinor’s field Valemon; , have been remotely controlled for a number of years.

Creating a safer working environment through remote operations, with less people offshore means employers are also adhering to the 8th UN Sustainable Development Goal. This is the goal that promotes sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all . Achieving this goal also helps companies along the path from an ESG perspective.

2. Pandemic-proofed technology
The covid pandemic was a huge turning point in the uptake of remote operations. While some reservations remain around remote operations, increasingly energy companies are asking how they can ensure their operations are ‘pandemic proof. This also applies to how they vet and plan for their sand management processes. This means that, while they may not want to deploy the technology at Level 6 right now, they want to know that fully autonomous is possible, should any issues around international travel hit again.

3. Remote operations can help to cut emissions
With ESG goals becoming an increasingly important measure of a company’s worth, cleaner technologies and processes are set to become ever more central in shaping the direction of the energy sector. This is key for countries, such as Norway, to be able to reach targets set by the Paris Agreement. This agreement details how a concerted effort is being made to hold ‘the increase in the global average temperature well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels’.

The ability to directly reduce POB, and cut associated travel costs, means that remote operations play a key role in helping energy companies reach their emissions targets. By helping operators recover hydrocarbons in a more sustainable way, remote operations will play a continued role in ensuring the sector has the solutions available on its journey towards a cleaner future.
4. Redundancies and safeguards built-in
Critical features that are built into all remote technologies include redundancies and safeguards. In effect, redundancy means that a system has a primary system (system A), and an equivalent backup system (system B). In the event that system A fails, system B can seamlessly take over. Often, this will alert the system to reach out for human intervention and oversight. In effect, the process means that if a piece of equipment working at Level 5 experiences two component failures, then the technology will stop working at Level 5 and revert to Level 3. This means that human control is required for the task to continue.
From a safety perspective, safeguards (which are logic based) mean that any action which might be considered ‘high risk’ will have several redundancies (which can be either logic based or voting systems) built-in as standard. This means several safety steps will occur before the ‘high risk’ action. In effect human control will always be paramount to the operation. The built-in redundancies means that the electronics can be less likely to fail, compared with mechanics. Further, due to the number of safeguards, it is commonly understood that downtime is decreased dramatically and any risk of ‘human error’ is removed.

5. Cost efficiencies
While remote technologies tend to cost slightly more initially. They offer synergies that result in savings from a project economics perspective. The reduction in POB offshore removes people, travel and hospitality costs.
With the ability to manage more units remotely at a given time, operators can be based onshore and monitor several different wells and operations at any given time. Therefore, they only need to apply the necessary time to a project. Knowledge sharing is also a key gain here, as all operators will be based onshore together, they can easily share information on other campaigns and experiences while in the same room. This means key learnings and experience is more easily shared amongst experts and benefit operations faster.

The steps towards embracing remote operations

To fully embrace technology at Level 6, the industry needs to have the proper infrastructure in place to make use of all the features. One future -proofed approach is for technologies to be built to a Level 6 standard, but for them to currently operate at Level 2 or 3. This means that when the industry is ready for fully autonomous platforms, the associated technologies will be available to be deployed immediately.

Remote operations are several years away from being the standard approach for sand management. In our next article we will analyze in detail how remote operations using a cyclonic desander can add exponential efficiencies to a project.