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Shell mines Microsoft Azure for AI to digitally transform upstream and downstream operations

Multi-national oil and gas company Shell is embarking on an artificial intelligence-led digital transformation of its business with the help of Microsoft Azure and C3 IoT

Shell is digging deeper into Microsoft’s cloud portfolio with plans to draw on the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of its Azure platform to bolster its upstream and downstream business.

Its plans will see the multi-national oil and gas company combine the capabilities of Microsoft Azure with C3 IoT’s platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering to create an infrastructure that will allow it to rapidly scale and replicate AI and machine learning applications across its business.

This includes its upstream operations, whose work includes locating new supplies of oil and gas, and its downstream business, which is concerned with the refining and distribution of these products.

In particular, the firm said it plans to initially use the platform to support the predictive maintenance of the hundreds of thousands of critical assets it manages across the globe through its upstream and downstream work.

Digital technologies are core to our strategy to strengthen our position as a leading energy company,” said Yuri Sebregts, executive vice-president for technology and CTO of Shell.

“Our collaboration with Microsoft gives us a solid digital platform to make our core business more effective and efficient and supports our ambition to provide more and cleaner energy solutions through technology.”

This work does not, however, mark the firm’s first foray into AI and machine learning, as it is already using these technologies to accurately predict where to locate its horizontal mines to make the most of newly-identified sources of oil and gas.

It is also using Azure-based, deep-learning technologies elsewhere in its business, which combine CCTV footage and internet of things (IoT) devices to identify and alert employees to potential safety hazards in its retail sites.

Judson Althoff, executive vice-president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Commercial Business, said Shell’s willingness to embrace new and emerging technologies is marking it out as a “digital pacesetter” in the oil and gas sector.

“As one of the energy sector’s largest and most prominent players, Shell’s wide-scale adoption of AI, machine learning and IoT technologies sets an example of how digital transformation can help the industry address resource challenges, improve asset performance and promote safety,” said Althoff.

Outside of AI, the company is already a reference customer for Microsoft Azure DevTest Labs, which it uses to provide its developers with self-service access to virtual machine-based development environments.

Having paired the technology with an existing deployment of Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services, Shell claims the setup means its software builds now take around 80% less time to complete.

Part of this is down to how much more productive and efficient the technology makes setting up development environments, said Johan Krebbers, IT chief technology officer at Royal Dutch Shell, in a blog post back in August 2018.

“In the past, our people would wait for days, if not longer, to get help creating VM [virtual machine] environments. They had no control over the process,” he said.

“Now, with the approach based on DevTest Labs, people can create and change their own setups on the fly. That gives them more versatility, more freedom, and more value to the company.”

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