Replacing parts of an outdated Baker Hughes turbine at a petrochemical plant in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, is about as fun as it sounds. The chore was supposed to halt operations at the facility for at least 10 days and cost $50,000 to fly a specialized U.S. work crew about 9,000 miles. Instead, once the equipment upgrade began last year, it took only five days and zero air travel—just an on-site technician wearing a dorky helmet camera and a few American engineers supervising remotely. They watched and coached the local crew through the helmet from a Baker Hughes site in Pomona, Calif.
Augmented-reality headsets, which overlay digital images on a real-world field of vision, are driving advances in industrial technology a few steps beyond FaceTime. While the likes of Apple, Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft race to develop mainstream AR consumer gadgets in the next couple of years, they’ve been outpaced by oil companies looking for ways to cut costs. Some are simply buying the goggles and building custom software; others are investing directly in AR startups; still others are making the hardware as well. Baker Hughes, a General Electric Co. subsidiary, calls its rig a Smart Helmet. “Traditionally I would have to pay for two people’s travel, two people’s accommodations, and so forth to visit the customer’s site to do the mentoring,” says John McMillan, a regional repairs chief at the company whose team uses the helmet regularly. “It’s saved me a lot.”
Baker Hughes co-created its AR headset with Italian developer VRMedia S.r.l. and wrote its own software. BP Plc says it’s using AR glasses to bring remote expertise to sites across the U.S. Startup RealWear Inc. says it’s signed two dozen other energy companies, including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp., to test its $2,000 headset. On March 6, AR software maker Upskill announced a fresh $17 million in venture funding from Boeing Co., Cisco Systems Inc., and other investors.
Remote gear can help experienced workers stay on the job even if they can no longer handle the travel or other physical demands of rig maintenance. “With these technologies, it’s more about the people than the hardware,” says Shell Executive Vice President Alisa Choong. Janette Marx, chief operating officer for industry recruiter Airswift, says remote work is also a good sales pitch to skilled technicians who might be lured by cushier gigs in Silicon Valley.
The bigger prize for oil companies is reduced downtime for equipment. Each day offline for a typical 200,000-barrel-a-day refinery can mean almost $12 million in lost revenue. Offshore oil and gas facilities often halt operations while waiting to fly specialists in by helicopter and, according to industry analyst Kimberlite International Oilfield Research, shut down 27 days a year on average. Little wonder, then, that analyst ABI Research estimates energy and utility companies’ annual spending on AR glasses and related technology will reach $18 billion in 2022, among the most of any industry.
Remote AR work doesn’t always go smoothly. Oil rigs often lack reliable wireless networks, and many headsets don’t yet meet the strict standards for areas near hazardous materials or high-risk jobs. Under certain conditions, for example, the headsets might emit dangerous sparks. That’s one reason many of the oil companies’ pilot programs remain just that for now.
Baker Hughes hasn’t had to worry about those issues yet, says John Westerheide, director of emerging technologies. In Malaysia, engineers were able to view equipment, send images to the headset screen, and talk directly to the on-site workers with few hiccups. “The way that we currently go to work,” Westerheide says, “that’s going to become much more virtual, interactive, and collaborative.”