Statoil has a dream of solving tomorrow’s energy problems today and to ultimately become the most carbon-efficient oil and gas producer in the world. To achieve these goals, technological advances and research will be paramount. And Statoil isn’t relying on the energy industry to conceptualize new technologies and processes in a silo. It seeks collaborative development with the best thinkers and biggest dreamers.
How is it that Andrea Machado, who works for an oil and gas company, is dealing with outer space? It’s all thanks to Statoil’s goal to shape the future of energy – and the acknowledgment that collaboration across industries is necessary to defy standard thinking and pursue innovative work that will affect the industry for years to come.
In addition to preparing for energy’s future, Statoil must also innovate to solve the challenges in the here and now. There are significant hurdles that must be overcome for successful, industry-leading projects – primary amongst them, the extreme environments and harsh weather conditions which often surround oil and gas operations, both onshore and offshore. Challenges can be compounded by remote communications over vast distances and depths, especially as workers aim to interpret large amounts of data quickly in order to keep projects on task and safe for all those involved.
So how does Statoil resolve these challenges and innovate technological solutions that will craft energy’s future? It looks to the stars.
FROM OUTER SPACE TO REMOTE AREAS ON EARTH
In many ways, working in outer space is similar to working in remote locations – there is a strong dependency on autonomous robots due to harsh environments, including extreme temperatures and pressure. In each case, technology is required to effectively gather data, then communicate it efficiently over long distances – even millions of miles. And at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at California Institute of Technology, scientists create out-of-this-world solutions to the material challenges of space all the time.
Statoil wondered if the answers to the challenges it faces here on earth could be solved similarly to those faced in outer space. For the company to harness world-leading thinking, Statoil partnered with JPL in 2013 and has since challenged some of its scientists to find how the technology developed for space might help us at home, and vice versa.
Andrea and her colleague Dr. Desikan Sundararajan, principal researcher, are two of those scientists. Both work for Statoil’s U.S. operations in Austin, Texas.
Andrea knows her contribution to the work between JPL and Statoil has, in some ways, allowed her to achieve her childhood dream: “Maybe I’m not in space, but I’m using technologies that are out there to change the path of the oil and gas industry. This work has become something more for me.
What more has it become? Together, JPL and Statoil are working to develop cutting-edge technologies which will make it easier for the oil and gas industry to prioritize care of the environment while still efficiently executing day-to-day operations in remote and harsh environments.
JPL doesn’t work with just any public partner, however. Brit Ragnhildstveit, Leading Consultant Business Development Research and Development, is Statoil’s representative for the collaboration with JPL, and she pointed out that the research must be unique and also related to something the private sector is not already doing for commercial reasons. It must be beneficial to JPL’s work in outer space – and Statoil’s scientists believe themselves equal to the task of providing their JPL counterparts with innovative ideas to stimulate technological maturation for both outer space missions and the creation of new technology for the oil and gas industry, where environmental concerns are at the forefront of every development.
“Through this collaboration, Statoil and JPL scientists expose each other to our working environments,” Andrea said. “I get the opportunity to visit the JPL campus and see the type of work they do – how they do it – and that also sparks a lot of innovation. And they can come to our sites and look at the operations… being immersed in each other’s working environments and the way that we bring our jobs to a product – that has helped me feel inspired.”
SENSING ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE
Since the collaboration’s inception in 2013, the team up has already embarked on several projects that may soon change the oil and gas industry.
“Environmental monitoring is something that is very near and dear to Statoil and the onshore oil and gas industry, but environmental monitoring is also very important for space exploration missions,” Desikan said. “So JPL built incredibly high sensitivity and high accuracy sensors which are capable of communicating very remotely over vast distances – and those abilities are easily leveraged, through Statoil and JPL’s collaboration, to benefit oil and gas operations.”
It was an idea that JPL had been exploring for a while – the sensors were developed to study the surface of Mars, so millions of miles away, satellites were monitoring methane gaseous emissions of other planets in our solar system. But JPL wasn’t sure about the applicability of this technology to the oil and gas industry – until Statoil proved otherwise. Statoil wanted to see the industry take a step-change toward monitoring emissions.
Together, the team discovered that outfitting drones with these sensors would allow for a new, highly effective way to monitor flaring and potential methane emissions. And in October 2016, they ran their first test at a Statoil onshore site.
“Coordinating these tests are like an orchestra,” Desikan said. “Every person needs to know what their role is, and we need to make sure that we have the right person for every role.”
Statoil and JPL not only problem solve using research and cutting-edge technology, together they also overcome logistical challenges associated with the research itself. For example, the FAA does not yet have clearly defined regulations for drone flights, which were necessary to tests at the onshore site. JPL and Statoil had internal reviews of the site location and needed to agree upon the location and safety protocols for the tests.
Additionally, the team needed to ensure that local landowners and residents were aware of their planned activity – their first flight was in North Dakota, and they sent courtesy communications to all people living near where the drones would be operating to ensure they didn’t encounter any resident interference or cause unnecessary concern as they ran the test.
With collaboration and partnership opportunities now present with an energy industry partner, JPL was able to test their idea at actual onshore sites – something they’d not been able to do before. Statoil, for their part, was able to weigh in and advise which emissions needed to be monitored and how the data from the drones collected needed to be reported so field operators – not just scientists – could read and act upon it. Statoil and JPL’s scientists are also working together to determine how to extend flight times for the drones; the North Dakota winter sapped battery power quickly, meaning the drones could only stay in the air briefly. Ideally, they will need to be in the air for 30 minutes to cover and record data from an entire onshore site.
Both teams continue working on solutions to a new drone platform and on making the data reported by the drones faster and more intuitive. As testing continues, scientists from across Statoil and JPL anticipate new challenges that will require both groups’ creative thinking to solve. But with each new challenge comes a new opportunity to collaborate and revolutionize standard practices across both industries. And that’s a prospect that keeps these scientists excited to learn from one another.
INTO THE FUTURE
Using drones to monitor emissions is only one project Statoil and JPL have been working on together. Exciting developments around the field of material sciences could soon yield new proppants – used in oil exploration – that are “as light as water, as strong as diamonds and cheaper than dirt.”
It sounds like science-fiction – but it’s truly all possible within the next several years thanks to the innovation and creativity that’s generated by the collaboration between Statoil and JPL.
“You tend to get stuck in what you think is possible,” Brit said. “But this collaboration is a way to broaden our mindset at both companies – and to make our business better at Statoil.”
“When we talk to people at JPL, nothing seems impossible,” Desikan agreed. “Whatever we dream, whatever we envision, we see there is always a possibility; JPL has something in their toolbox that can be used to make our dreams a reality.”
With the work between Statoil and JPL ongoing, the collaboration pushes both the space and oil and gas industries to the next level. Scientists from both sides are working together, inventing solutions today for environmental and technological problems society has yet to face.
Statoil continues to dream of changing the landscape of oil and gas industry operations. And the dedicated work of innovators like Andrea and Desikan and the collaboration with JPL make that dream a reality that won’t take light-years. It’s in the very near future.