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Sensor sensibility

Oil and gas operators are boosting efficiency with greater use of mobile devices and internet-connected sensors in the workplace. Adapting them for safe operation in hazardous environments is the mission of a leading manufacturer of intrinsically safe tablets

“There’s a big world of IoT technology that’s exploding right now,” says Thomas Ventulett, using the common abbreviation for the network of information-exchanging devices dubbed the Internet of Things.

It is an interesting choice of words, given Ventulett’s role as chief executive of Aegex Technologies, where its main product is designed to prevent explosions.

But the expression is apt - the number of devices that capitalise on cloud technologies and data analytics is multiplying rapidly in oil and gas workplaces, as operators look to IoT solutions to increase efficiency and ensure safety.

Safety is a particular concern in hazardous areas where there is a risk of an explosion.

Aegex’s signature product, the aegex10, is an “intrinsically safe” hand-held tablet, meaning that it is incapable of generating enough heat or energy to create a spark in environments where combustible gas may be present.

Intrinsically safe technologies – distinct from explosion-proof devices, which are encased in protective materials – are becoming more prevalent as operators employ more electronic inspection and maintenance techniques.

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"Our core goal is to make devices that can work safely in hazardous environments."
Thomas Ventulett, Aegex Technologies
 

 

“The industry has largely been stuck with paper and pencil and really expensive, specialised devices,” Ventulett says.

“Take that person who’s going around, doing their rounds, looking for corrosion or copying data from analogue gauges — there’s some lag time before that information makes it back into their process automation systems and process controls.”

The tablet allows users to capture and transmit data instantly. That can help inspectors, aided by software, detect potential problems before they become full-blown emergencies.

“Bringing that real-time aspect to it inherently makes it a safer environment,” he says.

The tablet also generates data that can be valuable for compliance, Ventulett notes. It may leave a time-and date-stamped trail of an employee’s movements during inspection and maintenance activities, and let supervisors offer guidance on the spot.

“These are difficult, challenging environments to work in,” he says. “Now, if I can monitor my people, if I can see that they’re doing the task effectively and we can talk about that in real time, it does inherently have a significant risk management side to it.”

 

Growing IoT family

Aegex announced earlier this year that it plans to license access to its intrinsic safety designs to help other technology companies expand the range of IoT equipment for hazardous offshore work environments.

The US-based company will also provide other manufacturers access to its testing and production facilities.

“Our core goal is to make devices that can work safely in hazardous environments,” Ventulett says.

The results will include sensors, scanners and wearable technologies, among other products. The equipment will be designed for tasks as varied as inventory management, inspection and maintenance, and employee health monitoring, while keeping to intrinsically safe standards.

The technology will enable designs that are “small, lightweight and inexpensive, not big metal boxes”, he says.

“That allows us to make the equipment very pervasive, and accessing more information makes the facility safer.”

Numerous sensors generating vast amounts of data will help operators spot trends that would be undetectable with paper and pencil, Ventulett says.

“Our ability to monitor air movement across a facility, to detect the presence of certain gases, humidity, temperature — all these different things, by monitoring them very closely, we are seeing patterns and trends that nobody has identified before.”

That information will help offshore oil and gas companies fine-tune operations and establish safer working practices, according to Ventulett.

“If we can deliver different bits of technology that help a rig operate – to empower people to communicate better, to operate safer – then that ultimately drives better efficiency in the whole facility.”

 

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