The 2010 explosion on the oil-drilling rig Deepwater Horizon was a wake-up call for BP, the British multinational oil and gas company that operated it at the time. The resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused major ecological damage and cost BP $20 billion in damages.
Disaster can often spur the development of better practices. That was BP’s goal when it began searching for ways to improve ongoing and emergency maintenance at its oil wells.
BP discovered that there simply aren’t enough field technicians with the experience to tackle big problems like the one that occurred on Deepwater Horizon. Since it’s not yet possible to teleport experts to the scene, “smart glasses” have emerged as the next best thing.
Glasses running augmented reality software can transmit what a field technician is seeing to an offsite expert, who can then “draw” on the image to guide the technician to fix the problem.
The company behind this technology now implemented across 13,000 BP wells is Israeli startup Fieldbit.
Fieldbit’s flagship product, Hero, is a collaboration platform that enables technicians and experts to communicate across great distances.
A second product, Fieldbit Knowledge, records their interactions and categorizes them for quick retrieval from a cloud-based database.
BP isn’t Fieldbit’s only client, nor are oil wells its sole focus. But it was an opportune industry for Fieldbit to get started.
“BP approached us almost two years ago with a pressing need,” Evyatar Meiron, Fieldbit’s CEO, tells ISRAEL21c.
“The augmented reality keeps the annotations in place. It can show where to cut a wire or exactly where to open a valve, things that are very difficult to explain in words.”
The growth of fracking was largely driving the change. The establishment of more small wells, mostly in the United States, put pressure on technicians to cover more ground without increasing costs to BP.
BP’s interest is clear in its 2018 annual report: “New technologies are helping us build intelligent operations throughout our businesses. We are using augmented reality (AR) devices such as ‘smart glasses’ across BPX Energy … we are now using the mobile platform to troubleshoot equipment, conduct safety verifications and deliver remote training.”
Meiron describes to ISRAEL21c how Fieldbit’s system works.
“We allow the field technician to send digital information to an expert. The expert has an editor and can take a snapshot of the video. He can draw on the snapshot and send it back to the technician, who receives this annotation projected on his device. The technician can turn his head and look in different directions. The augmented reality keeps the annotations in place. It can show where to cut a wire or exactly where to open a valve, things that are very difficult to explain in words.”
While glasses are the ideal, augmented reality can work on smartphones and tablets as well. That’s how Pokemon Go works. The Pokemons in the game can only be seen when you point the device at a location in the real world where the virtual creatures are “hiding.”
AR will eventually become ubiquitous for consumer applications, but for now “the value is much higher when we’re talking about business-to-business applications, with machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Meiron explains.
Fieldbit was founded in 2014 and its two-way collaboration Hero system was operational a year later. Fieldbit Knowledge was released this year.
The company’s newest product, Fieldbit Cosmic, allows corporate customers to connect Fieldbit with their own enterprise field-service management software. Meiron says the market for dispatching and scheduling software that tells a technician where to go and what to take to fix a malfunction is worth some $3 billion.
“To send an expert to a site can cost a few hundred dollars per visit,” Meiron points out. “A technician might make four to five visits a day. For an organization with 100 technicians, that can add up to millions of dollars in potential savings, not including the down time of the machine.”
Moreover, skilled field technicians are becoming harder to find. The old guard of technicians (mostly Baby Boomers) are starting to retire. “Millennials in many cases don’t want these jobs, working outside with customers. They want to sit in an office,” Meiron says, adding that 30 percent of field-service experts are expected to retire within the next three years. “Organizations risk losing large amounts of knowledge.”
Is Meiron suggesting that with Fieldbit’s AR glasses anyone can fix an oil rig? “Not at all,” he replies. “It shouldn’t be a layman, of course. But you also don’t need to understand all the mechanics of the machine. You just need to be the hands and eyes of the experts or use the knowledge on our device.”
Utilities, medical imaging, printing
European energy business ENGIE named Fieldbit its startup of the year in 2018.
While Fieldbit has made the biggest splash in the world of oil and gas, its first pilot client was a utility — Mekorot, Israel’s national water carrier. Fieldbit assisted technicians in fixing burst pipes and running regular monitoring tests for water quality.
The company also is in talks with industries such as printing and medical imaging.
“We are still small, less than 100 people, so we are not yet able to make cold calls to look for customers,” says Meiron, adding that 90% of sales have come from unsolicited inquiries.
Fieldbit has raised $7 million to date, including $1 million from the Israel Innovation Authority and the rest from the Russian Skolkovo Ventures fund, Eldad Weiss (the company’s chairman) and the Israeli family fund Atooro. A second round is now in progress.
Fieldbit is Meiron’s third startup. He prefers “conservative markets that have legacy solutions where new technology can help.”
That was the impetus for his creation of the Hebrew-language Hashavshevet program used by most Israeli accounting firms; the software company Wizcon, which made software to control factory production floors from a web browser; and PC Soft International, which also specialized in Internet-based automatic control software.
If there’s one common denominator underlining all of Meiron’s companies, it’s that “more first-time fixes and less downtime [result in] happier customers,” Meiron says.
Those customers may someday include you and me: Armed with AR-powered glasses, we may be able to make our own expert-guided household repairs.