Cover Story:
Remote Operations
Cover Story:
Remote Operations
Article title
Restricted movement due to global lockdowns has pushed oil and gas companies to reimagine operations and embrace remote technologies faster than ever.
(Photo courtesy of Marc Morrison/ and; Design by Melissa Ritchie)
Faiza Rizvi, Associate Editor

he year 2020 will be remembered for many reasons: a global pandemic, an economic crisis, a historic price war, negative oil prices—the list is endless. But despite the cloud of setbacks that overshadowed the oil and gas industry last year, digital transformation was a silver lining that accelerated at a pace never seen before.

Call it adaptive mode, survival strategy or just plain necessity; oil and gas companies, which were already making steady progress automating operations, accelerated acceptance of remote technologies during the pandemic when workforces were grounded and a low-price environment pushed businesses to do more with less.

“2020 will be remembered in part as the year digital transformation went fully mainstream in the energy sector,” Brad Barth, chief product officer with InEight, told E&P Plus. “As businesses adapted to the pandemic, the corresponding shift to remote work served as a jolt to the status quo. The result was a nearly industrywide embrace of cloud technology, digitalization and remote work more deeply than ever before, keeping projects moving despite unprecedented challenges.”

In what could be the industry’s next leap toward digitalization, major service companies continue reimagining operations to adjust to a leaner fracking market. Remote drilling, for instance, has seen an uptick over the pandemic period when workforces were grounded and complex drilling challenges were solved remotely by domain experts.

“It’s pretty amazing that the majority of our drilling work is taking place remotely,” Paul Madero, vice president of drilling services with Baker Hughes, told E&P Plus. “See, the beautiful thing about remote operations that most people don’t understand is that once you open that digital world, your ability to deploy these tools accelerates because now you’re very comfortable with it. It’s really kind of like when we all started using the internet. At first, we didn’t really know what it was, and when you start to realize its capabilities and the productivity that it can unlock, it’s tremendous.”

He continued, “This year alone, we’ve had over 50 new customers across more than 12 countries adopt remote operations. So it gives you a bit of a breadth of the adoption rate we continue to see, and we’re really excited about what the future holds for remote operations at Baker Hughes.”

Portrait of Alexander Boekhorst
“We are unlikely to reverse back to the old ways of working simply because people are now seeing and getting used to the advantages of remote operations, which are much faster, more efficient and have safety benefits.”
—Alexander Boekhorst, Shell
‘Here to stay’
Analysts unanimously agree that post-pandemic success for oil and gas companies means reducing costs and increasing productivity. Therefore, getting comfortable with remote application of skills has become critical.

The question is, will remote operations continue to thrive even after the pandemic?

“Remote operations are here to stay,” according to InEight’s Barth. “The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already well established, not just in the energy sector, but across all major industries. The necessary shift to remote led many organizations—including some of the biggest players in the energy sector—to accelerate their move to the cloud, but the writing has been on the wall for years: organizations that are successful with digital transformation can unlock benefits like remote project management, more efficient collaboration, better visibility and lower IT costs.”

Others expressed similar sentiment.

“This year, we have seen a huge uptick in remote operations, and I expect it to continue,” said Alexander Boekhorst, vice president of digitalization and computational science with Shell. “We are unlikely to reverse back to the old ways of working simply because people are now seeing and getting used to the advantages of remote operations, which are much faster, more efficient and have safety benefits. There is no need to fly people around or get close to drilling operations.”

Boekhorst continued, “Shell has been using remote technologies for about two decades. However, we have seen this trend accelerating recently, part of which is because of necessity.”

A wireline services field engineer with Baker Hughes monitors formation pressure measurements in a well offshore in the Caspian region from the company’s remote operations center in Louisiana. (Source: Baker Hughes)
Discussing remote technologies that have seen an increase in deployment rate this year, he said there has been a huge uptick in the use of Shell’s automation system called Shell WellVantage. This real-time connection transmits data from the drilling rig to specialists and drilling engineers. He added that the company has incorporated advanced artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) solutions in the system to provide much faster insights, optimize drilling operations and increase efficiency.

Over the past few months, Shell also has doubled down on the use of augmented reality (AR).

“This year, we have seen a tenfold increase in the use of virtual rooms that are powered by AR,” Boekhorst said.

He discussed the increased use of AR devices mounted on helmets, which an on-field worker can use to get real-time assistance via a video call, allowing the remote expert colleague to essentially see through their eyes and offer guidance remotely. Hundreds of these devices are being used in more than 30 locations.

He added that predictive maintenance is another area that has seen an uptick in activity.

“We have seen a massive increase in its deployment. Over 4,000 pieces of equipment are under direct predictive maintenance using 800,000 sensors. We can monitor and forecast issues with valves, compressors [and] pumps before they happen, and that is growing really fast. We have 23 assets in total under predictive maintenance monitoring with a huge amount of data supporting that,” Boekhorst said.

Upward momentum in remote operations
Video Icon

n this exclusive video for E&P Plus, Hart Energy’s Faiza Rizvi interviews two senior executives from Baker Hughes: Paul Madero, vice president of drilling services, and Shan Jegatheeswaran, vice president of digital for OFS.

Jegatheeswaran said the upward momentum in remote operations will continue to unlock opportunities and values, adding that remote operations is a “launch pad” that will shape the future operations of the oil field.

“The technical architecture being built for automated operations will lead to innovations that we don’t even consider today,” he said.

“Remote operations means different things to different people,” Madero added. “On the upstream side, what we’re really talking about when we say remote operations is truly moving the activities and functions of jobs in the traditional sense that used to be done on the rig or the well site back in the remote operating centers, where you have the same amount of control that you did before.”

Madero also highlighted three key areas to be considered for successful remote operations: state-of-the-art physical equipment required to capture and transmit data, advanced software that provides data channels, and the workflow.

“Remote operations are not just limited to drilling,” he said, adding that it extends to the full wellbore architecture from drilling to productions and completions. “This year, due to some of the challenges caused by the pandemic, we’ve been able to activate liner hangers remotely, we’ve also got a very long legacy of being able to optimize artificial lift systems, which have a direct correlation to daily production.”

Discussing the advantages of remote drilling to increase operator efficiencies, Madero said remote operations provide the opportunity for better collaboration, which is critical in the current environment.

Future of work
As the oil and gas industry accelerates its embrace of remote drilling and fracturing, the changes are expected to reshape the workforce and change the workplace permanently.

InEight’s Barth outlined three essential steps that energy companies need to take to enable the future of work in their organizations:

First, companies need a cloud-based software platform that is powerful enough to serve as a single source of truth for collecting and analyzing data from all of the various roles involved both internally and externally, while also being adaptable enough to meet the changing needs of a business as it grows. A cloud-based, subscription model for software also enables rapid ramp up and ramp down of usage as needed to reflect market conditions.

Second, with information overload being a very real risk, companies need to identify what information and key performance indicators are most critical for reporting and dashboards as well as for benchmarking. The time and money spent in the course of doing something should result not just in an outcome but also in captured knowledge that contributes to improvement for the next time.

Third, companies need to design and implement a change management plan and organization commitment to ensure a successful transition and instill a culture of collaboration and transparency. Too often, projects with the potential to transform a business for the better get derailed and their value diminished by a resistance to change and the tendency to revert to old ways in moments of stress.

A shift toward autonomous operations
Video Icon

n this exclusive video interview with E&P Plus, Weatherford executives discuss how they deployed remote technologies to effectively manage operations during the pandemic.

Joe Isaac, global product line vice president of liner systems and cementing products with Weatherford, explained how the company has been increasingly using AccuView, a remote installation support service and system that transmits secure, real-time information between personnel on the platform rig and the subject matter experts.

“Today we run hundreds of jobs on AccuView, mostly in our casing exit business. About a year and a half ago, we started using AccuView for the liner systems business as well,” he said. “With all that in place, we were actually quite prepared for what the pandemic brought on.”

In July 2020, Weatherford remotely installed a 16-inch liner hanger on an offshore platform in Sakhalin Island, Russia, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Remote training and monitoring procedures enabled the successful installation of the liner hanger system, cementing products and tubular running services.

Manoj Nimbalkar, global vice president of automation production and software with Weatherford, applauded the industry’s efforts in overcoming automation-related challenges. He pointed out that not too long ago, operators were unwilling to share their data due to poor cybersecurity, there were connectivity issues and several remote technologies were still in their infancy.

“What we’re seeing now is improved connectivity, improved trust factor in data sharing from operators because of the improvement in cybersecurity… I think the market is shifting more toward autonomous operations,” Nimbalkar said.

Where do people fit in the equation?
Pablo Avogadri, partner and associate director with BCG, foresees an inevitable reskilling of the workforce in the coming years. While other industries have attracted millennials and are more “digitally ready” for market recovery, he said the oil and gas industry historically faces a skills gap.

“If you look at the demographics of the oil and gas industry, there is clearly a generation gap, which is making reskilling tough. When you talk about remote operations, we must work on upskilling and efficiency of the workforce. In order to shift the power from the field to the remote centers, it is important to change the way people work.”

According to Stuart Harris, group president of digital transformation with Emerson, people are being replaced with sensors for effective asset management.

“If you’re going to remove people from the operations to work remotely, then by necessity you need alternative eyes and ears for the process, and that comes in the form of sensors,” he said.

He added that Emerson uses wireless non-intrusive battery-powered sensors that become the “eyes and ears” of the production process, which are not only used for typical process measurements around pressure, temperature, level and flow, but also for measuring corrosion, acoustic monitoring and toxic gas detection.

“These measurement technologies become very, very important as you start to take people out of the operations,” Harris said.

Breaking the cultural norms
Baker Hughes’ Madero underlined that the industry needs to break down cultural norms and adopt change management to advance in the area of remote operations.

“The biggest challenge is us,” Madero said, adding that humans are creatures of habit and consistency. “Having been in the industry for over 15 years, the one misconception I’ve noticed in the industry is that somehow physical presence equates to enhanced control of the outcome. But the truth is, that’s no longer the case.

“Through the workflows, through the ecosystem that we’ve built, through the blueprint that we have embedded in our technology for the last 20 years, our ability to drive more consistent outcomes is really coming through. So it’s really just trying to overcome those cultural norms of believing that you physically need someone in front of you for enhanced control. And I think what you saw in 2020 is that we’re proving that’s no longer the case.”

Portrait of Stuart Harris
“We’ve certainly seen that the drive toward remote and integrated operations has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. It’s very in line with the new kinds of operating challenges that oil and gas producers are facing.”
—Stuart Harris, Emerson
Madero also pointed out that remote operations have hit the “tipping point,” citing that more than 50% of Baker Hughes’ operations were carried out remotely in 2019, which increased to 80% in 2020.

Underlining speed and integration as two major benefits of automation, he said the ability to use AI and ML continues to accelerate, which has improved the speed, quality and consistency of decision-making, thereby optimizing operations in a much shorter cycle time. Madero also discussed that the increasing shift in automation will lead to integrated operations. With a “digital backbone” supporting field operations, there will be more multiskilling and less people on the field, supported by experts in the remote operation centers, he said.

Automation trends and opportunities
Video Icon

n this exclusive video interview with E&P Plus, Stuart Harris, group president of digital transformation with Emerson, discussed the accelerating trend of remote operations, its challenges, opportunities and future trends.

“We’ve certainly seen that the drive toward remote and integrated operations has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. It’s very in line with the new kinds of operating challenges that oil and gas producers are facing,” Harris said.

He pointed out that automation can be used a strategic lever in driving down project costs, which is much needed at a time when producers are looking for innovative ways to cut costs.

“When it comes to what we can do as an automation company to help change the cost position of the operating model regardless of what the oil prices are, we actually have a project execution methodology and leverage automation in an approach that we call project certainty,” Harris said. “And what we have demonstrated is that with some of these technologies and approaches, we can use automation as a strategic lever to affect the cost of the whole project. So while automation might only be 1% to 4% of the total project costs, we have demonstrated that it can actually impact 10% or more.”

Future trends
Discussing the future trends of remote operations, Shell’s Boekhorst said he expects to see a continued uptick in the usage of AR and drones in data collection as well as the deployment of more advanced solutions in the area of AI and ML for data processing.

“New technologies offer the opportunity to increase both cost and operational efficiency,” he said. “From our forecast of energy assets, remote technologies will expand production optimization and in real time steer the process control system to more optimal settings. Remote operations also reduce the CO2 production per unit of energy produced; there is an example of how it helps in efficiency of operations.”

According to Emerson’s Harris, the next step in remote operations will be the widespread adoption of autonomous operations—using technology to enable automated decision-making.

Portrait of Brad Barth
“2020 will be remembered in part as the year digital transformation went fully mainstream in the energy sector.”
—Brad Barth, InEight
“Often times, I think our industry intermixes remote operations, integrated operations and autonomous operations; sometimes those terms get used synonymously. In actual fact, they’ve each got distinct value propositions, and as we work with customers, what we’re seeing is depending on what their priorities and business goals are, it skews more to one or the other. And we find that most companies are looking at the combination of these three ideas as an operating model for the future.”

He added that oil and gas companies should adopt this new operating model to face the challenges of current market environment.

“As we think about reducing greenhouse emissions and the regulations that the industry is facing, if we can use news ways of work, especially autonomous operations, and leverage cloud-based technologies and wider digital transformation technologies, there is a synergistic effect here between some of the news ways of working and the business challenges that the industry faces,” Harris said.

Image of By the Numbers
AI’s impact on oil and gas
AI’s impact on oil and gas infographic
AI’s impact on oil and gas infographic
(Sources: Research and Markets, EY,, and IBM Global Markets; Data compiled by Brian Walzel; Infographic created by Melissa Ritchie)