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Pandemic has been a platform for digital technology growth

By Andrew Bradshaw, Fifth Ring

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The oil and gas industry is turning to drone technology.
The oil and gas industry is turning to drone technology.

I read an article recently from the Israeli historian and author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, on the lessons learned from a year of the Covid pandemic. He made some really interesting points.

His argument in a nutshell was that while many people believe the coronavirus has demonstrated humanity’s helplessness in the face of nature, in fact the opposite is true.

Scientific development has allowed us to control (to an arguable extent) natural events that were previously uncontrollable. Where mistakes have occurred, these have been due to human error (Harari singles out bad political decisions), not the failings of the scientific tools at our disposal.

The ultra rapid development of vaccines is a clear and obvious example of the benefits of modern science in combatting the coronavirus. But other developments may be taken for granted. What if the internet had completely failed during this period, for example?

During the Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918 – often compared to the present situation – a lockdown would have been unthinkable. Working from home or home schooling were not viable options. In its broadest sense, science has been the key enabler in allowing us to keep going.

Increased digitalisation is an important component of scientific development. Across societies and industries we talk about increased digitalisation – sometimes with trepidation, sometimes with excitement – and we often see it as an option; a method of achieving incremental improvements to support our human capabilities or performance.

Using the grammar app Grammarly, for instance, may pick up on my spelling mistakes or improve the structure of my sentences.

But in the past year, digital technology has become much more important to us than merely making things easier for us. It could be argued that it has filled the vast chasm in our working lives created by the pandemic. It has been our bridge from what we used to call ‘normal’ to where we are going.

In the oil and gas industry, there has been much talk for years about increasing digitalisation, but there is rarely any real drill down into what that actually means. We hear about the digital transformation as a concept and it is accepted that this is the right route to take, but the extent to which some companies or individuals buy into that notion beyond paying it lip service is questionable.

Making a show of investing in digital technology is one thing – ensuring employees are properly trained to use it and can understand and evaluate the data it delivers is another.

As an indication of the importance of digitalisation to the oil and gas industry, research conducted by Mordor Intelligence LLP forecasts an expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 60 per cent for digital technologies up to 2025.

One area that could not exist nowadays without digitalisation is remote inspection, particularly of offshore platforms. Remote inspection was a growing trend before we were hit by the pandemic. However, social isolation and restrictive working practices have triggered a rapid rise in demand for remote inspection services, including digital models and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

The capability of unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – is becoming more impressive.
The capability of unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – is becoming more impressive.

Grand View Research anticipates the global commercial UAV market will reach more than £93 billion by 2025, registering a CAGR of more than 56 per cent. That trend is likely to be reflected in the oil and gas industry.

As an example, Aberdeen-based remote inspection technology specialist Air Control Entech revealed recently that its revenue for the second half of 2020 was greater than it was for the whole of 2019, and 2021 was also looking promising.

As the weight of UAVs falls their range of capabilities increases. At less than 5000 grams, the latest UAVs for optical gas imaging are less than half the weight of their predecessors. That means they can fly higher and, in some cases, for more than twice as long.

Using drones to spot problems with pinpoint accuracy in previously inaccessible areas on a rig clearly has benefits for inspection, repair and maintenance and avoiding unplanned shutdowns. But it can also have health and safety advantages too by reducing the potential for risks to personnel.

The drone industry is just one example of a digitally led technology making the most of a market opportunity to deliver a valuable service.

For too long, the adoption of digital technology in the oil and gas industry has been has been slow, piecemeal and even resisted in some quarters.

The pandemic has been a platform for digitalisation to really prove its worth.

We’ve had to put our trust in this particular science. And now that it’s had the chance to prove its worth, there is no way back.

  • Andrew Bradshaw is head of energy insight at global corporate communications company Fifth Ring and is based at the company’s Inverness office. He is internationally recognised as one of the leading experts in energy public relations.

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