Intelligent Design

March 10, 2014

An animation depicts the Orion spacecraft's trip to and rendezvous with a relocated asteroid.

A new partnership between NASA and Deloitte hopes to bring many of NASA's proven technologies to the oil and gas industry, and even some of its unproven ones, too. Audrey Leon speaks with Deloitte's David Traylor and Nasa's David Kaplan to discover how artificial intelligence can be used in the oil and gas industry to improve safety and cut risk during remote operations.

Last June, US space agency NASA and New York-based consultancy Deloitte announced a new alliance that will allow the oil and gas industry to benefit from NASA’s long-proven technologies, risk programs, and even its safety culture.

One aspect of the NASA portion of the alliance that may be critical to future oil and gas operations is what is currently under development, a remote decision support system. This technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) to augment real-time decision-making during emergency situations. NASA hopes to employ this program, a “NASA in a box” so to speak, on its manned-Orion capsule, due to launch from Earth by 2021. The Orion capsule aims to transport humans to Mars and even beyond. With communication critical, nary a minute can be wasted between transmissions between mission control and the crew should something go awry.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan, chief of the quality organization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says having a system onboard that could aid teams in the decision making process is critical to mission success when communication between mission control and remote workers is difficult. For NASA, the ultimate goal is a manned trip to Mars, a journey that can take approximately nine months. Once in orbit, communication back to earth can take anywhere from 20 to 25 minutes, Kaplan says.

“So here you are at the most critical part of your nine month journey to Mars, and you’re entering the atmosphere to descend and land, and if some off-nominal event occurs you absolutely do not have the ability to radio back to Houston to ask for some insights, assistance or guidance,” Kaplan says. “NASA is committed to taking those sensors that we have and developing that expert system knowledge (AI) and placing it onboard the vehicle so that in the immediacy where you have to make the correct call, you have that intelligence with you.”

Kaplan says there’s no reason why the same technology couldn’t be applicable in a platform in the North Sea. “[It’s] the same philosophy of trying to understand data in a very fast manner,” he says.

Of course, for NASA, partnering with the oil and gas industry to develop this technology is self-serving, Kaplan says. “We want to be able to have the best artificial intelligence and the best emergency response capabilities when we send humans to Mars, or asteroids, or wherever. We’re looking to see if we can partner for everyone’s mutual benefit,” he says.

Astronauts on spacewalk to collect samples.

Deloitte’s part of the alliance is to take both NASA’s proven and unproven technologies and discuss with industry executives how the works can benefit current and future operations.

“The (AI) capability is not new, but the application to the sensors that feed information into oil and gas operators is,” says David Traylor, a principal at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “AI could be used to assimilate this information, especially as rapidly as it comes into a crisis situation, to help operators make the right decision.

“It doesn’t make the decisions, as much as it makes the right decision,” he says. “That is something that is not in use right now in the oil and gas industry.”

Traylor believes this smart support system is very attractive to the industry.

“This is a natural outgrowth of all the components already existing: the AI, the remote sensors. All the components are there, just using them in this manner is new,” Traylor says. “This is almost a certainty that it will be explored and developed.”

However, Traylor says, it will take time to teach the systems how to make the right decisions.

“It’s not a trivial task. Once we start working on it, we’re going to have to define the parameters. It is difficult to put a range of time, but how long it would take is measured in months, maybe not measured in years,” Traylor says.

There are many similarities between the oil and gas industry and NASA, a point stressed by both alliance members.

“NASA works with some pretty complicated engineering marvels – the space shuttle (now retired) and space station,” Kaplan says. “In many ways those complex engineering entities are not remarkably different from refineries and offshore platforms.

“As NASA has developed, we have found that more and more sensors and information for our station and our shuttles help to assure safe operations, reduce risk, and help engineers foresee trends that need to be interacted with.”

One worry for both NASA and the oil and gas industry is what to do with the endless streams of data that pours out of sensors monitoring sensitive equipment and processes.

“(Data) is a huge question for NASA, you have so many sensors and so many pieces of information, and much of it is really noise,” Kaplan says. “It doesn’t really contribute to understanding the concern that just popped up. So how you store the entire information, but see through to find those things that are relevant to immediacy of the situation, that’s a critical technology that NASA wants to help develop.”

Traylor says for AI-enabled remote decision support systems to make their way into the oil and gas industry, it would take a collaborative environment amongst industry.

“You have to let the AI know in certain scenarios what information is more important than other information,” Traylor says.

“Are you seeing things you’ve never seen before? And what are the possible correct actions? What are the next steps, especially in a crisis situation, to give immediate response assistance to the operators. NASA has some great capabilities in this area. But of course, that needs to be taught to the AI in the oil and gas environment.”

He points to recent success of joint research and development that had occurred post-Macondo and the formation of the Marine Well Containment Company to prove the industry can work well together.

“With these types of capabilities – they already share so many operations offshore – it only makes sense for this to be joint research and development,” Traylor says. “I don’t think this something that is addressed on a company by company basis.

“There is some customization of application within each individual company, especially when it comes to the platforms and drillships they operate, as well as the refineries. But how this gets pursued is perhaps an evolution of cooperation in the research and development environment that we have seen most recently with oil and gas companies,” Traylor says.