Costs in the oil industry are considerable and mistakes are measured in millions not thousands. Good planning is essential and companies spend large amounts of time, effort and money trying to iron out difficulties and get things right long before a drill bit touches bedrock or the first section of a pipeline is laid. But traditional methods of analysing complex subsurface data are not foolproof and even the best-laid plans can go awry, with unforeseen difficulties resulting in pipeline projects overrunning or wells being drilled in the wrong place.
However, developments in IT are proving helpful in the industry's fight to cut costs and boost efficiency, particularly virtual reality technologies. The use of virtual reality or visualisation software in the oil industry is being pioneered by British Petroleum (BP) where geophysicist David Roberts has been closely involved in the introduction of this new technology into this company.
The technology has come a long way since Roberts started work on visualisation at BP about six years ago. In the early days it was difficult to get people to use the software, he says. The visualisation software ran on conventional PCs and this proved to be impractical for teamwork, with people complaining that they could not see the images on the relatively small screens. It was not until BP invested in setting up its own virtual reality rooms or "highly immersive visualisation environments" (Hives) that it took off.
The first time Roberts saw a Hive, which, for the sake of simplicity he describes as "basically just a big computer screen", was in 1997 at the California offices of graphics server specialist Silicon Graphics (SGI). BP opened its own Hive in January 1999, in Houston, Texas, and now has 17 scattered across the globe. The Hives cost about $1m (£707,000) a piece and have two main parts - an Onyx 2 computer from SGI and screens and projectors from US firm Panoram. One of the core pieces of software used in the Hives is Geoprobe, from Houston based company Magic Earth, which was one of the first packages designed specifically for the big screen. All the Hives incorporate active stereo and users wear infrared glasses to experience the sense of virtual reality.
The first type of work to be done on the company's Hives was the planning of oil wells. This was an obvious application, says Roberts, due to the huge costs involved in drilling wells offshore, and the first place BP made some major wins was in the Gulf of Mexico, where on one project alone it saved $30m using visualisation. The company also uses its Hives to plan the location and course of pipelines. Again the opportunities for rapid return on investment are enormous. On one exploration in the Caspian Sea the company saved at least $100m in one morning using visualisation, according to Roberts. He says BP is getting "tremendous value" out of looking at its data using 3D. "We can make all of our mistakes on the computer first," he says.
The Geoprobe software also has an opacity function, which the company uses to produce simulations of water-injected wells. By increasing the opacity of a rock image on the screen, highlighting the oil deposits and then animating the flow of water through the rock, BP staff can ascertain the best way of "flushing out" the oil. Roberts says that this application has got "tremendous implications" for the way that BP recovers oil from that rock.
Other uses include interpreting highly complex seismic data, which can be presented more clearly in 3-D. "For years we thought that everyone knew what we were talking about when we showed them the seismic charts but we found out that was not the case," says Roberts.
The company is also investigating the use of visualisation techniques in some of its other business streams and one area that Roberts believes will become increasingly important is interpreting financial data in a graphical format. "You can reduce the whole business stream into one picture and that can be fantastically powerful," he says, although the company is still some way from success as it is more difficult to visualise this kind of data.
Oil platform modification is another potential application for visualisation techniques, and the company is investigating the possibility of using the technology to conduct "virtual tours" of its facilities. "The more you think about it the more uses there are," says Roberts enthusiastically.
On a day-to-day basis BP uses its Hives for technical meetings and team meetings to review projects. The company is involved in many joint ventures and conducts meetings with partners in the Hives to discuss and visualise the work at hand. Decisions can be made in real time, resulting in both quicker and better decision making. "The time saving is dramatic," Roberts says.
There are also important implications for increasing safety and reducing the environmental impact by planning the position of wells and pipelines more effectively. BP also shows new and potential employees around the Hives and Roberts hopes the technology will help the company to attract and retain staff. BP wants to encourage a new generation into the industry. Interest in disciplines like geophysics is declining and by showing schoolchildren and students around the Hives the company hopes to improve the image of disciplines like geophysics.
It has not all been straightforward, however. The company realised early on that it did not have the in-house IT skills to use its new software. In the event it borrowed super-users from software suppliers such as Landmark to act as "pilots" to operate the technology.
Another major problem is connectivity between the Hives. The existing bandwidth and software is not yet sufficient to support this effectively, says Roberts, and improving this area is one of the company's key objectives. Some users have complained that the brightness and focus on the screens is not sharp enough, while others do not like the dark rooms. As a result, BP is looking at investing in better projector technology and the possibility of building daylight Hives using very bright projectors.
Performance problems have been minimal. "It is pretty much self running once it is set up," Roberts says, describing the Hive's core computer, Onyx 2, as "a very robust visualisation workhorse". And BP has built up its in-house skills so that about half of the software pilots are "home grown".
Roberts says that BP is at the leading edge of using visualisation in the oil industry but says it is not about to rest on its laurels. The company's research centre at the University of Colorado is already looking into what lies beyond Hives. The centre has a computer-assisted virtual environment (Cave). Users enter the Cave, which is basically "a 10ft cube", wearing stereo glasses and are effectively "immersed" in data. "It is much more real than a Hive," says Roberts. "Rather than just looking at data you can walk around in it." This helps users to see things that they would not be able to see in a conventional Hive. So instead of looking at a 3-D image of the seabed, BP staff can effectively walk on it.
The company is also part of the VR Geo consortium, based in Bonn, Germany, which is dedicated to developing new visualisation technology. Roberts, himself, is the chairman of the group.
"We have shocked ourselves with the speed we have been able to deploy this around the company," he says. "It is not in research centres, it is at the coal face and that is really important. We use ours for work and we are really proud of it."
On top of this the company has made some major financial gains. However, these are not the only benefits. "We have found a way of getting people excited about their work again," says Roberts. "We had not planned that but it is unmeasurable in terms of value."
How visualisation saves millions for BP
Oil well planning
BP wanted to tap into five different oil reservoirs it had identified in the Gulf of Mexico, where the cost of drilling a well is about $15m. Normally this would involve drilling five different wells, however, by using visualisation, BP was able to ascertain that the reservoirs were closer together than it had thought and that by drilling wells in certain spots it could hit more than one reservoir with the same well. The company managed to reduce the number of wells it had to drill to three, effectively saving $30m. (Hives cost about $1m.) The saving was achieved over a two-hour morning session - not a bad morning's work by anyone's reckoning.
On another occasion during a project to plan the route of a proposed pipeline in the Caspian Sea, by using visualisation the company discovered that its planned route went over a snow-covered mountain. This would have added unnecessary time, cash and effort to the project. BP changed the route and the company saved about $100m in a single morning session.