Supermajor’s investment arm backs artificial intelligence start-up.
Artificial intelligence (AI), digitalisation and automation are all key areas of debate and innovation in the oil industry right now. That has also meant an increase in interest and capital flows outside the conventional arenas of oil and gas technology.
In early June Pasadena-based Beyond Limits, an AI-focused start-up spun out of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), announced that it had secured US$20 million in investment from BP Ventures. Leveraging technology from Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and from projects with NASA and the US Department of Defense, Beyond Limits is more used to finding ways of deploying its IP to interplanetary missions than managing resources on earth. However, the oil super-major’s corporate and technology investment arm is evidently keen to see if the start-up’s expertise can aid its own push towards smarter digital operations. Reportedly, the Series B funding will accelerate delivery of industrial-grade AI software, and combine BP’s existing human knowledge with machine learning to provide “new levels of operational insight, business optimisation and process automation across all operations.”
According to the two companies, the partnership could enable a step change in the way BP locates and develops reservoirs, produces and refines crude oil, and markets and supplies refined products. The software is aimed at improving the speed and quality of decision-making and managing operational risks, as well as better harnessing and sharing some of the human expertise of BP’s team.
In a statement, BP’s chief digital innovation officer Morag Watson commented: “Our strategic co-operation with Beyond Limits is a perfect fit with BP’s vision of using digital technology to help transform our organisation. We believe artificial intelligence will be one of the most critical digital technologies to drive new levels of performance across the industry.”
In an interview with ZDNet, Beyond Limits CEO AJ Abdallat explained: “Whereas many popularised cognitive computing solutions in the marketplace are focused on deep machine learning applied to sensor fusion and computer vision, our cognitive computing focuses on human thinking and automates human decision processes.” This enables it to speculate, compute hypothetical scenarios and fill in data gaps using its experience – much as a human operator might do.
BP Ventures – America’s managing director, Meghan Sharp, will also join the Beyond Limits board. As has been seen with other venture capital arms – last month, for example, InnovOil spoke with Statoil Technology Invest about its strategy and technology targets – BP’s investments are made with a view to enabling long-term gains for the organisation, rather than rapid technology development or financial return. BP Ventures’ portfolio is oriented towards E&P and downstream conversion process technologies, as well as a strategic focus on five key areas, including: bio and low-carbon products, carbon management, power and storage, advanced mobility and digital transformation.
Highlighting the diversity of this approach, in April 2016, BP Ventures acquired a stake in RocketRoute, a flight planning business. BP’s aviation business – Air BP – had co-operated with the company previously to co-ordinate its aviation fuelling network. The company’s cloud-based services help integrate flight planning, fuel purchasing, crew briefing, flight plan filing, dispatch and flight tracking into its proprietary app.
Neither is BP the first operator to embrace AI technology; GE is also putting weight behind its proprietary Predix platform, applying machine learning and AI elements to tasks such as predictive corrosion management, and has acquired a string of other AI-focused companies to help it expand its offering.
With super-majors like BP and services giants such as GE pushing the technology, AI has well and truly arrived in oil and gas. Beyond Limits’ interstellar-tested technologies may be the latest to benefit from BP’s backing, but they are certainly not the last.