BP has bought into artificial intelligence technology developed for space exploration as it joins growing interest among oil and gas companies in the use of big data to help find new resources. The UK group has invested in Californian start-up Beyond Limits, which is adapting software from Nasa, the US space agency, and the US Department of Defence, for commercial use. The deal, agreed last week, adds to signs that an industry associated with “roughneck” engineers hunting oil in far-flung locations with greasy drilling equipment is embracing digital technology. Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the largest independent US oil producers, said last month that it planned to use artificial intelligence to increase the chances of success when drilling wells.
In April, Eni, the Italian oil and gas major, announced that it had started operating a new supercomputer that Claudio Descalzi, chief executive, said would improve the accuracy of its seismic imaging and geological modeling. Live event What will we do when machines do everything? Join us on June 19th for a conversation about automation and what it means for the future world of work. More powerful imaging technology is giving oil companies greater visibility when carrying out seismic surveys of potential resources and this is combining with increasing computing power to analyze the resulting data. Software is also being used to improve the safety and reliability of existing production and refining infrastructure — aiding a broader industry push to increase efficiency since oil prices crashed three years ago.
Morag Watson, chief digital innovation officer at BP, said artificial intelligence would be “one of the most critical digital technologies to drive new levels of performance” in the industry. The $20m investment in Beyond Limits will come from the group’s venture finance arm, BP Ventures. The US company aims to commercialize technology developed for “the robotic exploration of the solar system” at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Our goal is to create automated solutions that can think like humans and augment human capability.
“Our goal is to create automated solutions that can think like humans and augment human capability,” said AJ Abdallat, Chief Executive officer and Beyond Limits Co-Founder.
In a speech earlier this year, Bernard Looney, director of BP’s exploration and production business, acknowledged that the oil industry had been slow to wake up to the opportunities of digital technology, but this was beginning to change. “We are now making up for lost time — fast,” he said. “Big data is revolutionising big oil.” Addressing investors last month, Chris Cheatwood, chief technology officer of Pioneer Natural Resources, said machine learning would make drilling more predictable. The aim was to get “to a point where it’s actually artificial intelligence that’s drilling our wells for us, with us observing,” he said. “So instead of, ‘hey, we drilled a record [low-cost] well for $3.5m and then we have a train wreck that’s $8m, we’ll start narrowing in on, hey, we’re averaging around $4.5m . . . for drilling a well’.”