The new world of assistive technologies is set to transform ‘zero manning'

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There has been an increase in focus placed on minimizing or removing the human presence in extreme environments by using remote operations and assistive technologies for monitoring and decision support.  

These new technologies are transforming how personnel are used and how their exposure to potentially hazardous work environments can be minimized as well as reduce the overall capital and operating costs of a typical pipeline project. Since a reduction in manning is a fundamental shift for the industry, it needs to be considered carefully so that safety is not compromised.  

Floating facilities that support pipeline projects with reduced or no personnel on board can be remotely operated from a nearby asset or a control center located onshore. To enable such changes, real-time monitoring, control automation and maintenance procedures incorporating remote diagnostics and simulations with minimal human intervention will be required. This concept requires detailed consideration of the remote-control center, the communication infrastructure, smart functionalities and leveraging digital twin and simulation technologies. 

Designing for ‘zero manning’ 

Compared to a conventional facility, those with reduced or no personnel will have roles transferred from a pipeline and project team to a remote-control center. The ability to perform operations remotely relies on the design features, technologies, sensors, data flow and the software collecting and analyzing the data. New risks may arise from the reduction or absence of a pipeline team that could have previously been located offshore or on land, and this must be addressed in the overall design effort. 

Look for the 7 factors approach 

Factors that need to be considered when reducing the number of personnel include:  

  1. Function: The functional requirements should be considered as the primary driver. Key functions should be identified based on the type of facility, level of automation and autonomy and the facility’s main function. They may include remote control and monitoring, accessibility and maintenance, remote testing, fire safety/fire detection and firefighting, main and emergency power supply and import/export systems. 
  2. Operation: Remote control systems and technology should be analyzed in detail to identify all relevant potential hazards and their impact. 
  3. Structures and systems: While most design principles, such as structural integrity, will be the same as for a fully manned facility, consideration should be given to any unique elements introduced by the reduction in manning. 
  4. Software quality and engineering-in security: Given that software will become even more integral to the operation of a pipeline facility with reduced manning, rigorous software engineering practices should be followed. This includes detailed testing of functional and extra functional requirements and employing highly developed software FMECA (Failure Modes Effects and Criticality Analysis) techniques to identify and control potential risks to asset safety and how projects are completed. 
  5. System engineering and integration: Close attention should be paid to the level of system engineering and integration. The verification and validation of an integrated system will require focus on functionality, operability and safety. 
  6. Automation and human Involvement: The desired degree of autonomy and level of control need to be decided and documented. 
  7. Human factor engineering: Human in the Loop (HITL) analysis for the remote-control room and facility are needed, and which addresses the implementation ofthebasic principles of human factors engineering (HFE) and ergonomics. 

The overall objective of the design of unmanned pipeline facilities is typically to provide an equivalent level of safety to traditionally manned facilities. This challenge is usually addressed through a risk-based approach, which can include identifying and managing the risk of novel features to an acceptable level using as low as reasonably practical (ALARP) principles or criteria. 

Increasing the regulatory framework 

For marine applications, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has defined several levels of autonomy. These levels are driven by the varying levels of controls representing human and machine involvement with monitoring, analysis, decision-making and action. Here is an example of autonomy levels and control methods applicable to offshore installations – a framework that has crossover with other activity. 

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For offshore applications, which are often not subject to the full IMO framework, the proposed arrangements and operations will need to comply with the local requirements and location of where the facility or project will be installed. In many cases, requirements have been developed based on traditional manning requirements and require careful consideration with regulatory authorities to achieve the necessary compliance. 

Barriers to reduced and zero manning 

Considerable work has already been progressed to understand the existing regulations and standards, and their inherent ‘barriers’ to deploying and operating facilities and pipelines with minimal or no personnel. The barriers can be risk ranked (critical, high, medium, low and negligible) and re-evaluated with potential ‘technology’ credit whereby the risk ranking is changed due to new technologies that can be introduced to remove or minimize human presence and involvement.  

Mitigating barriers will usually require a structural and organizational change with the widely recognized model focusing on three areas of People, Process and Technology. The barriers and their mitigation will need to be discussed with transparency for stakeholders including regulatory bodies. 

Focus on people 

The people element will need to consider the HITL and the implementation of basic principles of HFE and ergonomics, critical for health and safety practices whether offshore or onshore and at the remote-control station. This will include considerations such as crew habitability and the integration of HFE and ergonomics, so that the facility is designed and arranged to support consistent task performance in both normal operations and crisis management. 

Focus on process 

The shifting of processes to adopt more automation with minimal or no human involvement will require the adoption of new technologies as well as a rethink of the life-cycle strategy, reliability strategy and maintenance management. If human involvement is required, then the process should be capable of being run from a remote location. Process improvement must be carried out in a structured manner starting with an Enterprise Asset Management assessment to evaluate the life-cycle strategy, reliability strategy, smart functionality and organization readiness. 

Focus on technology 

The adoption of new technology and replacing action by humans will need to show that risk has been reduced to ALARP level. To be considered, new technologies will have to have a reasonable technology readiness level (TRL) and be qualified. Such technologies for a facility may include aspects including connectivity, data collection and storage, management and analytics of sensor information, condition-based and predictive maintenance information, digital twins, and so on.  

Since pipeline projects can incorporate autonomous functions, for example on a vessel or in a facility, it is often an incremental process. To help support this process ABS has introduced a ‘smart to autonomous’ framework, which works toward the goals of the facility by using established Rules and Guides in the Smart, CyberSafetyTM and Software Series. These are applied so that the technical requirements for software, cyber security and data are successfully achieved throughout – from manned to reduced manning, and to unmanned facilities, in a systematic and planned way. 

While the journey to zero manning may seem a challenge, expert help is available to assist offshore on onshore pipeline operators that keep projects running safely and efficiently. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) recently launched its white paper on reduced manning, which is the result of the organization’s activities in projects and various working groups across Europe, Americas and Asia. ABS also developed classification requirements for equipment reliability, smart functionality, autonomous and remote-control operations.  


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