Five Questions with HUVR Advisor Larry Barnard

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Posted on June 20

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Five Questions with HUVR Advisor Larry Barnard

HUVR is honored to have a group of outstanding SMEs and industry luminaries (or both) as customers, in the HUVR Partner Network or in the HUVR Advisor Network. Whenever we have the chance, we pick their brain about what’s going on in their particular area of expertise. We decided it was criminal we weren’t sharing these conversations with everyone. As such, Five Questions was born.

ONE: Why did you choose to become a HUVR advisor?

In my experience there are a large number of mid to small size companies that may have a handle on the data-gathering side, but perhaps are not aware of the complexity in an intuitive data-presentation layer for customers, co-workers and clients. Larger companies may opt for an in-house solution that may suffer from sustainability challenges, true integration, and uptime as employees move to other opportunities. I aim to utilize my experiences and challenges faced over 30 years in oil and gas to help HUVR provide a clear choice for customers and industries utilizing robotics/image-based inspections.

TWO: How did you get to where you are today? Would you be able to provide a quick overview of your career path?

I started with Chevron about a year after I got out of the United States Coast Guard (thank you for your service, Larry, -Ed.) and held a variety of downstream positions in Operations, Maintenance, and Technical departments. Toward the end of my career I was working on some technology initiatives for Chevron, and I had the idea around 2016 to start using drones at work. I was utilizing drones on surf trips down to Baja, Mexico, and I was doing a lot of aerial filming. I started to think, “This might be valuable in reducing or completely eliminating my coworkers’ exposure to high risk tasks.

For instance, robotics could help in the execution of some of their tasks: anything above ground, anything in close proximity to high heat, work above ground level and certainly high voltage. So there were a lot of uses right out of the gate. But the challenge was getting all those use cases dialed in–understanding what we’re currently paying to inspect and maintain our facility and then trying to figure out if and how a drone could help either reduce risk, cost, or time to collect the data.

Initially, when I went to the leadership team for approval to look into using this technology, I was met with a resounding “No, no, thank you. We don’t want to get in that business.” So I had to show a little gumption and continue to make the case. By 2018/19, they approved my request to invest in a few small drones, and we got to work using them out in the field right away. 

I went to a few drone trade shows to introduce myself to the technology and how people were using it, and to find out what was coming in terms of hardware and software–to learn what was in the pipeline to make it easier to use drones. My learning curve was very, very steep. 

That was just on the technology piece. I also had to spend a lot of time understanding the regulatory environment because it changes depending on where you’re flying. It’s not as simple as unboxing a drone, charging a battery and going out and flying in a high-risk environment. 

So, I taught myself how to write a waiver. We received FAA approval for day or night, 24/7, which was phenomenal. I think the FAA at Los Angeles, which is Class Bravo airspace, only handed out like five waivers and four of them were police and fire–one of them was for the Chevron El Segundo Refinery; the first ever FAA UAS airspace approval in the corporation.

We were operating less than 1.2 miles south of the fourth-busiest airport in the world, so it did not look good for getting permission to legally operate drones. But we did it. It was, interestingly enough, about 3 to 6 months to hear back. I got a lot of compliments on how the waiver was written. They didn’t have a lot of follow up questions.

In terms of scaling, Chevron operates slightly differently than other oil and gas producers–but very effectively. The refinery general managers and the individual facilities are fairly autonomous with regard to what opportunities they can take advantage of. But I saw an opportunity and a need to get at least the downstream segment of Chevron on board to have a centralized approach to drone inspections. If it’s working really well and you support it at one facility, why aren’t we doing it everywhere? 

Being persistent but respectful, I was able to secure central funding and get some assurances that these projects at individual sites would be funded. You’ve got to be respectful in the process. You can’t get frustrated and say, “Why aren’t you guys just blindly going along with my idea without any questions?” 

Since I retired, my focus is on my brand new grandson. He’s a year and a half now. I’m really, really focused on spending time with my two daughters, my grandson and my family. It’s great to be retired. I am really enjoying being retired. But I’m also pretty happy to still be engaged in helping HUVR and others with their path forward and to bring good products to market. 

THREE: What’s the biggest risk/challenge that you see in the oil & gas/robotics space today?

I think the opportunities outweigh most concerns. Overall, robotics provide a much lower risk, lower cost, highly efficient way to collect data.

Currently, what I’m seeing is a slow transition away from the interest in shiny hardware and more of a focus of where it should have been from the beginning–on the data. Even if it’s just to inform, or to help with decision-making to justify a cost-versus-benefit, or looking at the integrity and reliability of equipment. Robots provide people with a very efficient, but also very cost-effective way to inspect equipment and help co-workers or customers maintain desired levels of operability, reliability and integrity–especially in an oil and gas facility. 

What used to take three to seven days, as far as an inspection of some type of equipment, can now be reduced to less than an hour in a lot of cases. But you really have to put the focus and the emphasis on the data that’s being collected. You have to consider how well your organization is lined up with regard to people who can look at this data and make decisions. Perhaps you’re utilizing some sort of artificial intelligence, whether it’s computer vision or machine learning, or some other type of AI to help you sift through the data before people have to get in front of it. There are a lot of opportunities–and a lot of challenges–for the industry to start delivering on some of these artificial intelligence promises, as well as for people learning how to use this data and to realize the promise of what drones and robots were going to be from day one.

Effective results being achieved using inspection data from robots are still disparate. Some people are still taking pictures and don’t know where to store or how to access them. Or they use very manual processes for moving the images around, whether it’s email attachments or something else inefficient/unreliable. 

It seems that some people who have worked with an identified partner and funded a project to kind of fast track the capability that good software could bring to the data management equation are a lot farther ahead than some smaller companies, or companies where it started at a grassroots level. Obviously, smaller companies often don’t have the infrastructure or resources in place to back up the drone and the data that it’s collecting–so it’s really all over the map. But the opportunities are there.

FOUR: In your opinion, what’s the biggest opportunity/reward in the oil & gas/robotics space today?

There are a couple of very big opportunities/rewards; on the data side and the robotics use-case side.

The biggest opportunity in the oil and gas robotic space, where we’ve saved the most money, is internal equipment inspection. You can save hundreds of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars by being able to utilize drones and robotics in interior spaces, whether that’s ducting, pipes, furnaces, reactors, etc. There have been a couple of use-cases where we’ve been able to operate internal drones in a process unit to verify the conditions inside the equipment before it started up, and we were able to save close to 2 million dollars just by utilizing a drone instead of scaffolding and an 8 or 10 person crew. The drone is a very, very effective alternative to the way we’ve historically performed inspection tasks. And you get the data immediately. You don’t have to wait – I love that! You may also broadcast a video signal to a large monitor, website, or a Zoom call. No matter where you are in the world, you can dial in, sit there at your desk and watch the inspection occur, and see the internal condition of the equipment in real time. 

You also have opportunities for “better” on the data and data management, usage and analysis side.  It’s an exciting time to be part of this.

FIVE: What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone starting out in the industry?

If you’re passionate about it, you’re on the right track. Do your due diligence, educate yourself, get involved with the technology. Depending on what business you’re in, whether you’re doing real estate, construction, oil and gas, or whether you’re doing solar wind. etc. Whether you’re using it for federal or civilian jobs, take the time to educate yourself about what the need is and what the capability is of the drone or the robot. Right tool for the job (payloads!)

The way that you’re going to show value and continue to operate this technology, if you really believe it will help, is by understanding. How much does your organization currently pay for something that’s done a certain way? Do you clearly understand how the drone could enhance the task? How can it reduce or eliminate cost or risk over existing or traditional methods? That’s probably one of the biggest things: understand your costs. Understand how the drone is going to benefit that task. And then get training. There’s no substitute for flying. For getting out there and operating in a variety of environments and conditions. 

Finally, don’t ever be afraid to say, “No, we’re not flying today. We have some risks to consider (weather, air traffic, abnormal process plant conditions, equipment anomalies, etc..”

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