There’s no doubt, there are going to be great changes in the way we work and what tools we use to do that work in the oil and gas industry.

The industry has already embraced the power of supercomputing, simulation and visualization, particularly in subsurface analysis, but now also augmented reality and real-time information sharing tools—from heads-up displays to aerial drones—are taking new capabilities to the workface, remotely and via human interfaces.

These technologies are coming at a time when the industry’s workforce is already going through a significant shift. Between 2014 and 2017, the U.K. industry alone lost more than 70,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to a joint study by Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University (RGU) and oil and gas skills body Opito.

A further 80,000 workers are likely to retire or leave the sector for other reasons by 2035, according to the RGU/Opito study, called the UKCS Workforce Dynamics Review. However, while many will leave, some 40,000 people are still expected to enter the industry and, of those, 10,000 are expected to be in new areas such as data analytics, data science, robotics, material science, change management and remote operations.

A significant trend will be around moving the workforce onshore, through remote access capabilities, the report said. “Many of the tasks currently done on location will, in the future, be managed from onshore centers [where the key expertise will be] with the execution happening on site by ‘multiskilled’ operatives, following clear procedures and instructions from the onshore centers,” according to the study.

This will require new tools—such as wireless connectivity on offshore platforms and heads-up displays—to drive information to the worksite, aid use of remote experts, and free up workers’ hands, as well as for wearables, for sensing and communication, Blaine Tookey, who works in BP’s Digital Innovation Office, said at an Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) event in May.

“The smart mobile is great, but let’s get it out of people’s hands, which plays in to heads-up displays being really useful,” said Tookey, bringing safety, efficiency, and analytics to the work site.

A raft of companies is coming up with devices to do this—and much more. s. London-based BodyTrak, for example, has developed an in-ear device that can be used for two-way communication but it also has motion and biometric sensors, which can alert both the worker to his or her position or condition, as well as a manager, or fellow workers, said Richard Collins, head of product development at the firm, which is a spin-out from London-based Inova Design.

Using circadian rhythm training (learning 24-hour body clocks, essentially), artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud, these devices can monitor body temperature, heart-rate, falls, and physical strain, Collins said at the OGTC event. One trial of the technology is seeing it used in conjunction with a drone, to enable a private LTE (a 4G communication standard) network, to allow monitoring of and communication between a platoon. Each member of the platoon that wears the device would be connected to the rest of the platoon via the drone.

BodyTrak’s analytics platform. (Image Source: BodyTrak)

Richard Marshall, CTO at Chelsea Apps Factory in Edinburgh, said that “digital, or AI, is a work force multiplier,” not replacing humans, but extending their capabilities. AI is being used by Gmail to offer automated responses to messages, he said. This is being used for 13% of Gmail responses, Marshall told the OGTC event. “This could be useful for an outside worker with gloves on,” he said.

Visual headsets are already in use by field service technicians, “extensively,” and aeroplane manufacturer Boeing is using Google Glass for people doing wiring harnesses and there are now shirts available which tell you if your yoga pose is correct. The examples are extensive, Marshall said.

Audio tools, like Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri, are being used in warehousing, where a computer tells workers, via a headset, what they need to collect. The worker speaks back to say they’ve collected the item. Also, for warehousing, a U.S. firm called Vuzix has a headset with cameras that can see six bar codes simultaneously and more, meanwhile, Walmart has shelf scanning robots that scan for misplaced products and pricing.

“AI is not about building replicate humans, it’s about optimizing processes and delivery in enhanced and improved experience,” Marshall said. “It’s not replacing, it’s extending the capabilities of the human.”

Some of the benefits of these technologies are obvious, for example, better health and safety control, knowing where staff are in an emergency, increased efficiency, contractor management, enabling workers with more information and guidance in the field, fatigue and stress management, better location of gas detection, etc. Tookey said that in an industry with just 16% to 20% “time on tools,” the digitally enabled worker is an opportunity to increase productivity.

With the falling cost of electronics, including the likes of GPS sensors, these technologies are also becoming cheaper to adopt. However, one challenge for the offshore industry has been wireless communication networks availability and capability. The heavy metal involved in an offshore installation reflects 4G and 5G signals. But, it’s getting easier to do, Tookey said. Low power wide area networks, long range low power wide area networks, and narrow band technologies, are also likely to enable communications in the field much more seamlessly, enabling Internet of Things (IoT) devices, he adds.

There’s also a looming challenge around how these devices are integrated. Could workers end up covered in a whole raft of different, but unconnected devices? Tookey wants one integrated device: “One platform, one connection, one battery charging,” he said. “Think of synergies you would get: automatic situation awareness, location (where GPS as accurate), smart sensing (a multitude of miniaturized sensors), [information via] a heads-up display. You can use augmented reality and drive information to the workers’ display, such as procedures and instructions.”

Marshall agreed. With a “connected” or “digital worker,” there’s a risk that sensor device firms will produce their own dashboards, “but you don’t want lots of dashboards.” In addition to communications, there’s a significant challenge when it comes to getting technology offshore: getting ATEX certification (ATEX is the name commonly given to the two European Directives for controlling explosive atmospheres), which is often expensive, as well as meeting regulations. There are also less obvious issues, such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If firms have all this data on workers’ health, will they fall foul of GDPR?

The OGTC, a public-funded industry research and knowledge organization, has been looking at some of these issues. Stephen Ashley, Digital Transformation Solution Centre manager at the OGTC, said a major challenge will be getting a joined-up approach across the industry, enabling integration and standardization.

Bringing along the workforce will also be critical, both in terms of upskilling those already in the industry, as well as bringing new people in.