Virtual Reality (VR) is more than just a fad used for video games or streaming videos. While it is a fun way to pass the time, trenchless construction and rehabilitation can utilize the technology for something far more useful than a few games.

The oil and gas industry is beginning to turn to this technology to reimagine the industry. Oil and gas projects in 2020 can improve the overall design of drilling projects, using both virtual and augmented reality (AR), offer better training for employees, and create a safer working environment.

VR for Improved Design of Drilling Projects

By using virtual reality, there is an opportunity for improved design of oil and gas projects, particularly drilling projects. Traditional project planning requires a site survey. Geologists take the data and interpret it using 2D schematics and sometimes 3D models. However, these methods still limit geologists and project managers. There is no way to manipulate the data to determine the best course of drilling.

With virtual reality, geologists can use seismic data to create a 3D rendering, which allows geologists and project managers to plan a better drill. The rendering can create a virtual walk-through for proposed drilling operations and allow them to run different scenarios to determine the best outcome. (Read also: How 3D Laser Scanning is Removing the Guesswork from Pipeline Condition Assessments.)

In Norway, the company Equinor uses virtual reality for well-planning purposes. They call their VR platform “Cave,” and it allows experts to visualize the oil and gas reservoirs in the area. Cave gives them access to know which reservoirs are safest to tap and how to complete the drilling project with minimal issues.

GlobalData recently released a study on the Oil and Gas industry’s use of virtual and augmented reality. In their thematic report, Ravindra Puranik, the Oil and Gas Analyst at GlobalData, said:

“3D vision helps the company’s employees visualize and study different layers within the formation and identify deposits of oil, gas, and water in the reservoir. The adaptation of VR technology is benefitting Equinor to considerably reduce the time required for the process of discovering new hydrocarbon reserves.”

How Does VR Provide Better Training?

Virtual reality offers companies a unique training platform for new employees. Rather than wait until the employee is on-site to train them in safety and equipment use, companies can produce a 3D rendering of the oil rig. It allows the employee to get hands-on experience in operating equipment. Many oil and gas companies see virtual reality as a way of sharing knowledge in an accelerated manner.

Oil and gas companies also use virtual reality for safety training by simulating emergencies that employees may see while on the rig. During these drills, workers can learn how to manage the issue without putting real employees in danger to do so, giving them hands-on experience in situations and areas where it may not be feasible in real life. (Read also: Evacuation Safety First: Top 5 Digging Disasters.)

With virtual reality, days of waiting for assistance on repairs at field locations may see a reduction. A remote worker can “plug-in” to virtual reality and see the malfunctioning equipment. The remote technician can then diagnose the problem and troubleshoot the issue by communicating information directly to the workers at the facility.

Shell Oil, one of the companies cited in the GlobalData report as an early adopter of VR technology, has been using both virtual and augmented reality in their company for around four years. Justin Shroud, a portfolio development manager with Shell TechWorks, sees virtual reality as a way of training employees and offering assistance when needed.

Saudi Aramco leverages a virtual reality system designed by EON reality. With this system, the company can simulate real-world scenarios and provide a highly effective transfer of knowledge of different processes to employees.

GlobalData’s Puranik says:

“Adoption of VR technology enables companies to improve communication, collaboration, and coordination across different functions and thus boosts productivity in operations. Also, the immersive experiences delivered by VR technology increases employee engagement and helps in achieving the overall objectives of training programs."

How Does VR Help with Safety Concerns?

The biggest hope for companies adopting virtual reality for oil and gas projects in 2020 during the planning and design phases is increased safety. Traditional 2D and 3D schematics cannot help planners and managers to foresee all potential safety issues with the design of the drilling rig or with the drill itself. (Read also: The Essentials to Drilling and Boring Wells.) While much research goes into planning, sometimes companies push forward, not knowing if there is going to be a potential safety issue until it occurs.

Virtual reality builds a three-dimensional world that workers can use to test projections and plans before they do them. It allows them to see all the issues and pitfalls they may have when it comes to their plans.

Stantec, an international design and consultation company, helps design oil and gas drilling rigs. During the planning phase, Stantec utilizes VR technology to help discover potentially hazardous conditions. One project they designed used pressure safety valves (PSV) to vent into the atmosphere.

While the design team believed they had the PSV in places that addressed safety concerns, they discovered in VR simulations that the valves were not in the best spot. There were certain locations of the facility that were in the direct path of the PSVs if they should open.

While it was unlikely that the PSVs would be utilized, knowing the risks in advance allowed Stantec’s team to revise the design so that the PSVs could open without additional safety issues.

What Are Barriers to Using Virtual Reality?

According to the GlobalData Thematic report, there are already several oil and gas companies adopting virtual reality in their planning and drilling process. Included in this list are ConocoPhillips, Shell, Baker Hughes, Equinor, Chevron, BP, Gazprom, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Sinope, and Halliburton. (Read also: New and Innovative Trenchless Solutions for Oil and Gas Pipeline Crossings.)

Some don’t believe that virtual reality has yet hit its high point for oil and gas projects in 2020. Instead, they believe it will be at least another three to five years before it is widely used by all oil and gas companies, due to infrastructure and other barriers for regular use.

There are infrastructure barriers that make virtual reality difficult to be incorporated into real-world use. One such problem is a network connection. To use the virtual reality head-mounted displays (HMDs) efficiently, they need to connect to the network to download schematics and other data. Some geographical areas don’t have access to Wi-Fi connectivity. In places such as West Texas, consumers struggle to maintain cell phone service and have little to no access to Wi-Fi. Using virtual reality in this area would be difficult.

Security is also another issue. Even with Wi-Fi connectivity, companies need to have a security protocol in place that protects the proprietary data being accessed by the HMDs. Some companies do not have the security infrastructure in place yet for wide use.

A final barrier is the HMDs themselves. In an office environment, using an HMD for a short time is not an issue. However, on an oil rig or in a refinery, workers need to wear protective gear including hard hats. Mounting an HMD to a hard hat is possible, but with the battery to run the HMD, it could make the hat heavy, and nearly impossible to use for long periods.

Final Thoughts

Virtual reality is being used for Oil and Gas projects in 2020 and will continue to grow in its usefulness to the industry in the future.

With the ability to test and plan with greater accuracy, oil and gas companies can better plan their drilling projects, train new employees, and increase safety on their rigs and during drilling.