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Oil and Gas Digital Solutions: Autonomous Water Treatment Systems Still Need Humans
While SCADA systems can help oil and gas companies more efficiently manage their operations, the human element is still necessary.
While the digital oilfield is now here in full force, there will still be a significant human component. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can process huge amounts of data to make operational decisions (e.g., detecting a full tank and shutting off a pump or rerouting its flow.) But many of those decisions involve weighing too many- and often subjective- priorities to be left to AI and machine learning alone.
What these ever-growing digital tools can do, however, is allow a small number of people to track dozens of wells across hundreds of miles of remote landscape. This deploys additional resources only when there is a perceived problem detected by this human/machine operations team.
The field of automation has advanced greatly in a short time. Just a few years ago, water treatment plants required people on site to attend to valves, pumps, and sludge tanks or to manage the flow of vehicles in and out of the facility. They were standing still doing two things: watching for a problem to report or listening for a call telling them to adjust a pump, spin a valve, or run a water quality test. There would seem to be few things less efficient than that antiquated operation.
Early SCADA systems reduced the number of field personnel as sensors began doing the monitoring and sent data to computers programmed with alarms that alerted staff to make adjustments or repairs. By taking over the most monotonous and unproductive aspect of human work, automation made personnel more efficient and valuable. And it freed up employees to focus on more productive tasks.
Automation’s next evolution connected actuators to control valves in the field, enabling one or two technicians in an onsite control room to respond to many, often simultaneous, alarms by telling the computer to make specific adjustments.
The latest systems take that one step further, making it possible for all monitoring and control to be done off site. Mobile apps, web versions, and on-site camera surveillance make this possible.
For example, should a tank level gauge trigger an alarm because a tank is filling up, the latest software allows remote technicians to access the site’s operations and even view camera footage associated with the alarm to verify the situation.
With sophisticated hardware, software, and communication systems, a small number of people at a single monitoring point can monitor and control facilities in multiple fields across an entire basin.
The irony in removing all people from the site is oftentimes there are actually more eyes on the operation than before. This is because an unlimited amount of personnel can receive alarms and see what’s happening at the site remotely. Those individuals can also pull up all the historical data to decide how to proceed or determine if a site visit is necessary.
While this kind of technology benefits all aspects of the energy industry, it is particularly suited to the midstream sector, which involves assets that spread widely across basins. Midstream’s entire existence revolves around transporting fluid across great distances, which would make in-person monitoring extremely inefficient.
In addition, remote monitoring greatly reduces the miles driven, which increases safety. It means technicians sent to sites are more likely to be fully prepared for what they will find with parts, tools and expertise, and therefore able to get the system back up and running without extra trips.
Even when everything is in order, this kind of system is vital in managing flow on a daily or even hourly basis. Should the input level at one disposal well reach capacity, remote monitoring personnel can divert an appropriate amount of fluid to a different well that has available capacity.
The near future looks even brighter for remotely aggregated monitoring and control. In addition to processing and analyzing floods of data, AI aggregates information as it goes. The industry is working to train AI to assess trends for their predictive value.
One option will be to monitor water flow throughout a system to determine the source of the highest volume of skim oil. Armed with those data points, operators or disposal companies can divert the most oil-rich water back through a separator to collect and profit from a product that would otherwise be lost to a saltwater disposal well.
This system also can remotely monitor water flow and quality to adjust chemical input as those elements change throughout the day. This can save on costly chemical injection when flow rates are down, yet make sure they are adequate to protect the formation when flow rates or contamination levels rise.
Because systems like SitePro also monitor an extensive list of pump information beyond flow rates and voltages (e.g., temperature, stroke, fault codes and more), the plan is to use that data to make pump adjustments to maximize efficiency and predict maintenance needs. By reducing downtime in this way, producers face less risk of produced water backups that in a worst-case scenario can require wells to be shut in while the problem is resolved.
Autonomous Monitoring and the Bottom Line
With private-equity firms changing their requirements from growth to current profitability and cash flow, everyone in the oil patch is investigating ways technology can reduce costs and improve efficiency. The most efficient way to employ technology on this front is to outsource it to third-party experts with existing systems, rather than spending vast amounts of time and money on creating an internal automation system. Investors may not be willing to wait the months or even years it can take to develop internally. Most are looking to invest in companies that can demonstrate a solid bottom line now.
Will automation ever completely replace manual processes? While science fiction likes to explore how that would look, the truth is that in today’s world computers cannot think creatively. They can excel at one thing: rapidly doing what people tell them to do. And that is exactly how they make us much more efficient in a variety of industries, including in water treatment and transfer.