In the past twenty years, smartphones have taken over the world. But, because of concerns that range from safety to cybersecurity and compliance, the oil and gas industry has been slow to adopt them. Is it finally time for a change?
Today, there are more cell phones than people in the world. But you would not guess it by visiting oil and gas installations.
The primary reason, of course, is safety: because a malfunctioning device could cause a spark that could ignite flammable gas, commercially available smartphones are banned from many sites, including oil wells and refineries. In addition, many assets are geographically remote, and low connectivity can make it difficult to communicate with the outside world, upload information, or access online tools.
This has made the digital transformation of the Oil and Gas industry an uphill battle. While other industries have made mobile devices the cornerstone of their digitization, many oil and gas companies still swear by ruggedized laptops and struggle to phase out paper-based processes.
But the situation is changing. With intrinsically safe devices, bespoke mobile applications, and greater connectivity allowed by 5G and LEO networks, some leading actors are using smartphones to increase productivity, become more efficient, and reduce costs. Here is why:
Mobile workers need mobile solutions
If challenges to using mobile devices in oil and gas are significant, so are its potential benefits.
Oil and Gas facilities are often immense: a pipeline can span across thousands of miles, and the world’s largest refinery, in Gujarat, India, is half the size of Manhattan. Saddling the thousands of mobile workers who operate and maintain these facilities with desktop interfaces and pen-and-paper processes can therefore prove highly wasteful.
On oil tankers, Bert Verplancke, Sales Director with Hexagon's Asset Lifecycle Intelligence division, has witnessed the negative consequences this can create: “ on large vessels, workers are walking long distances. When something goes wrong, having to go back to the Engine Control Center, grab your laptop, and access your enterprise asset management system before heading back is a significant waste of time and money. To make matters worse, the information that is collected significantly loses in quality, and may come too late” .
Real-time capture leads to more accurate data and saves time
With the appropriate mobile device and applications, workers can not only signal problems on the spot but also enrich their descriptions with images, a short video, or even a voice recording.
“ Coupled with our asset management software, HxGN EAM, mobile devices help companies operate more efficiently because they dramatically increase the quality of the data collected”, confirms Verplancke. “Using rugged phones or tablets, oil and gas workers can share information that is useful, not only in the field but also all the way to the headquarters.”
A survey of oil and gas workers commissioned by Panasonic attests to the range of potential benefits: 80% cite improved efficiency as a primary benefit of mobile devices. Greater connectivity (48%), access to real-time information (40%), and data capture (32%) also rank at the top of the list.
What is notable, Verplancke says, is that these benefits are not only expressed by management, but also by field workers
: “ The younger generation of workers are used to using mobile devices to communicate and record situations, both in personal and professional settings. In addition, they generally appreciate being on the go, rather than coming to the yard for meetings, and having easier, immediate access to the metadata and notes they need to do their job. ”
Smartphones lead to smarter maintenance
These benefits can make a real difference when it comes to maintenance. Tooled with the right applications, field workers can view the characteristics and history of each piece of equipment and run automated monitoring processes from their smartphones.
In addition, they can record their activities as they work, creating data that makes future repairs more effective.
Connecting this data to other sources, such as smart tools, can also be incredibly powerful: “ some of our clients have smart wrenches that can be connected to the smartphone. Now, the smartphone can tell you how much torque you applied to that bolt, and how further you need to go. The company can also collect macro data to identify that 70% of their leaks are caused by bolts that have not been tightened enough – and retrain or re-task their workers accordingly ”, notes industry expert Dan Morrison.
Environmental regulations could impose faster reaction times
And, as governments ramp up environmental regulations, Oil & Gas companies find that empowering mobile workers could become essential to meeting their mandated sustainability targets.
Around the world, several countries and territories have adopted new rules that require Oil & Gas companies to curb the greenhouse gas emissions caused by their production processes. Among the practices in their crosshairs are leaks and methane flaring - the use of fire at oil and gas wells to burn off excess gas.
A common byproduct of oil production, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with an effect several times stronger than carbon dioxide.  Drastically reducing methane emissions from Oil & Gas operations could therefore have an effect akin to taking millions of cars off the road. 
This has led New Mexico to adopt a “98% containment rule” that requires oil operators to capture 98% of methane gas emissions by 2026 while prohibiting routine flaring. (source?). The European Union is following a similar route as part of its “EU Methane Strategy”, which also contains requirements for Leak Detection & Repair (LDAR).
Connected mobile workers play a critical role in helping Oil & Gas companies abide by these new rules. They are able to intervene faster and, with access to meter readings, analytics, and historical data, they are better equipped to detect leaks. They can also make better decisions when it comes to maintenance and equipment shutdowns. Finally, they let companies meet their reporting obligations and demonstrate compliance, thereby avoiding steep financial penalties.
Three things to consider: devices, applications, integrations
Taken together, these benefits make a compelling case for more mobile devices and connected workers in Oil & gas operations. But several considerations must be kept in mind for successful implementation.
The first one goes almost without saying: beyond being intrinsically safe, mobile devices need to withstand specific conditions, such as high and low temperatures or radio interference. Moreover, many mobile devices can be difficult to use in high-luminosity settings, or with protective equipment, for example.
The same goes for software and applications. The main constraint is to preserve functionality in situations where connectivity is low or nonexistent. “ Given the environments where we operate, applications cannot require constant access to the cloud . Being able to operate offline – for example, to perform an inventory in an area with no connectivity - and to synchronize data in a smart way are critical features ”, Dan Morrison says.
Bert Verplancke warns of another pitfall: adopting standalone third-party solutions that are not integrated with other systems, in an effort to cut costs.
“Using an off-the-shelf mobile application that is not integrated with the rest of your software can rapidly become a factor of complexity and risk. For example, every time the application gets an update, workers can have to adapt to unexpected changes in the interface or realize that a feature they were using is gone. And relying on multiple solutions from multiple providers can also raise concerns for cybersecurity and compliance”.
These three prerequisites - usability, interface with enterprise applications, and integration within asset management systems - mean that we may not see the latest iPhone and its latest features become enterprise tools in Oil & Gas anytime soon. But today, the conditions are met for the oil and gas industry to (finally) go mobile. And, from maintenance to collaboration and sustainability, smart mobile devices have the potential to be key accelerators of its digital transformation.
 The Rise of Digitalization and Rugged Devices in Oil and Gas , Zpryme/Panasonic 2020.
 Scientists raise alarm over ‘dangerously fast’ growth in atmospheric methane , Nature, February 2022
 New Mexico Approves Rules Requiring 98 Percent Gas Capture and Prohibiting Venting and Flaring , Thomson Reuters, April 7, 2021