Virtual Presence: Live visual streaming technology remotely connects experts to the field

The rollout of what tech giants like Cisco Systems call the Internet of Things (IoT)—the company predicts there will be 50 billion devices connected online by 2020, with a total market valued at $19 trillion—is increasingly making inroads in an oil and gas sector keen to cut costs in today’s low price environment. A small Winnipeg-based company that has developed a technology that allows users to literally see those devices at work is doing its part to advance the IoT transition.

Librestream Technologies has taken fast-growing video conferencing formats, such as Citrix Technology’s GoToMeeting and Cisco’s WebEx, now an $11 billion-per-year business, to a new level, extending video conferencing and collaboration so that, using mobile devices, workers can visually connect to experts at work stations from difficult-to-access locations, such as plant floors, oil rigs, aircraft repair hangers, mines and emergency response sites.

The company’s patented Onsight Mobile Collaboration System, now deployed across a wide range of industry sectors, enables full and immediate collaboration for remote workers using its family of hand-held wireless devices and collaboration software, allowing workers to connect with experts using a desktop and Librestream’s Onsight Expert software.

Thanks to a collaboration agreement between Cisco and Librestream, the company’s technology can also be used to extend collaboration with additional participants through the use of Onsight Expert for desktops and Cisco WebEx and its related TelePresence product.

In late May, Cisco selected Librestream as a winner of its prestigious Cisco Solution Partner Program Business Outcome Contest in the manufacturing and energy category. Cisco said it was honouring the company’s technology because it “recognizes its outstanding innovation in solving real-life business challenges.”

For oilfield service giant Baker Hughes, the use of the technology has been a godsend, particularly when used at offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Philippe Flichy, the Houston-based senior digital oilfield adviser with the company’s enterprise technology division, says the Onsight system has allowed the company to shift to a rig monitoring, maintenance and repair system that is similar to aircraft control systems that have been in use for decades.

“It allows us to do more with less,” he says. “By the time you fly a specialist [and other staffers] to an offshore platform with a helicopter, you’re burning through a lot of money. Using this technology we can avoid that.”

He says Baker Hughes is contractually responsible for non-productive time on offshore platforms if there is an equipment failure or other problems. “That can cost us half a million dollars a day on an offshore platform.”

Librestream’s rugged cameras, built for industrial sites, are ideal for the rough world of the offshore energy industry, says Flichy.

“Because their cameras go from micro to zoom, it’s perfect for us,” he says. “The image is clear and we have our own system to compress the image and send it back and forth. On the back of the camera there’s a device that lets you circle an area and take a fixed image [telestration], which allows for advanced consultation.”

GLOBAL REMOTE SUPPORT

Baker Hughes uses the system on 40 offshore platforms and on rigs and other installations worldwide. Using the camera systems on rigs in Africa, the Middle East and other hard-to-reach locations has saved many millions of dollars, he says.

“Getting a visa for a specialist who needs to go to Africa can take three to five weeks, but using this system can help us avoid that,” he says.

Using what he likens to a control tower, Baker Hughes’s complimentary workflow system, with a specialist at the helm, can guide field workers through a list of questions and tasks, with the Onsight systems providing visual access that is almost as good as being at the location—but without the associated costs.

In addition, Flichy says the systems assist in worker health and safety, an important consideration for Baker Hughes. Because specialists don’t have to be flown or otherwise transported to remote sites, they are kept out of harm’s way.

The company also uses the cameras in the oilsands and the conventional oil and gas business in Canada. “We have one type of use in our warehouses [in Alberta] where we receive used equipment that is coming back from the field,” he says. “Rather than having clients come to the warehouses, we can show them what the problems are.”

Baker Hughes, which is in the process of being bought for US$35 billion by rival Halliburton, has bought 200 Onsight systems.

Jereme Pitts, Librestream’s Los Angeles area-based chief operating officer, is a successful tech entrepreneur with experience in video technology and software sales. In 1999, he co-founded Accordent Technologies, a leading provider of video content management and delivery solutions. He was senior vice-president of sales and marketing for that firm, which was sold in 2011 to Polycom for US$50 million. He has also been involved with other successful start-ups.

Pitts joined Librestream in 2013 after having developed a close relationship with Cisco, which in 2010 acquired European-based enterprise video leader Tandberg for $3.3 billion. Pitts had previously worked with Tandberg.

“A friend from Cisco said ‘you should know about this company,’” says Pitts, who had been semi-retired prior to joining the firm. “They [Librestream] didn’t have a sales structure [appropriate] for a $17 million a year [in revenue] company, so I joined them.”

He had one condition. “I didn’t want to move to Winnipeg with my family,” he says, alluding to the city’s reputation for cold winters.

But he certainly warmed to its technology, which is why he joined the company.

EXPANDED REACH

That has led to a significant ramp-up in sales and marketing efforts, and to some large new contracts for the company, which now earns about $20 million a year in revenue, which he says he expects to double or triple in the near future.

Librestream has developed software that allows its technology to be imbedded on smartphone and tablet apps. Taking its business model beyond just selling its high-tech cameras, the company in mid-February announced a deal with San Antonio–based USAA using those apps. USAA is a financial services and insurance organization that services more than 10 million current and former members of the U.S. military.

The sale of its Onsight Connect software to such a large customer was described at the time by Kerry Thacher, Librestream chief executive officer and founder, as a “watershed deal” because millions of USAA customers will potentially use the technology to connect with claims representatives.

Using its Onsight Connect product, images and audio can be shared in a secure environment to assess losses, determine needed services and, in some case, adjust claims in real time, Librestream said. The secure network Librestream offers lets clients interact with a claims adjuster who can direct the client to point the camera at a damaged vehicle, for instance. The adjuster can zoom in or freeze the frame, as well as access other features.

No financial terms were announced, but Thacher, an engineer by training, says it was one of the largest deals ever for the company, which he founded 12 years ago. “This is a new customer service model,” Thacher said then. “There are others talking about it, like aircraft manufacturers, auto companies or companies that service IT facilities. They all like the idea of customers showing what is going wrong and getting immediate help.”

Pitts says the new software product should open up large new markets for the company. However, he certainly won’t be ignoring the core market for its high tech cameras, led by the oil and gas industry. “In the early days our biggest customers were in the oil and gas industry,” he says.

Aside from the obvious benefits of its technology for the sector, the company has benefitted from being embraced by Winnipeg’s business elite. For example, George Taylor Richardson, the scion of Winnipeg-based grain and securities giant James Richardson & Sons, sat on the company’s board prior to his death last May and members of the family remain active in the company, which has deep links to the Canadian oil and gas industry.

“In the oil and gas industry we have cameras everywhere you can legally have a camera,” Pitts joked.

CREW CHANGE SOLUTION

Aside from the financial challenges now facing the energy industry as a result of lower commodity prices, it is faced with the prospect of older, experienced workers retiring.

Cisco executives have touted Librestream’s technology as one important way of leveraging shrinking human resources in an industry faced with the loss of many skilled workers going forward, the tightening of regulations affecting the industry and social licence factors facing the sector in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Technological advances, such as the development of better and cheaper sensors and cloud computing, have also played a role in the move by more and more companies in many different sectors to embrace Librestream’s technology.

Pitts says the Onsight offerings aren’t reliant on access to wireless Internet service. “The technology is designed for low bandwidths,” he says. “When they don’t have access to wireless, our customers can use cellular or satellite services.”

He says oil and gas customers routinely save hundreds of thousands of dollars by using the company’s camera technology.

“For instance, we had an oil and gas customer who had a manhole cover drop three storeys from a platform. They would normally have sent three people by helicopter to deal with the situation. But they were able to use our camera system to deal with it all remotely, by connecting the experts with the field crew.”

There are also many environments, such as high-pressure and extreme heat units in refineries, where the use of the cameras allows companies to avoid sending workers into dangerous environments.

Librestream’s cameras are manufactured in Winnipeg, which is also where its software is developed and managed. He says the company’s high-tech camera systems sell for between $5,000 and $15,000 each, while the deployment of its newer software product on a company’s network can cost in the millions of dollars.

The company, which employs 60 people, may eventually go public. Meanwhile, he says it has a lot of growth ahead of it. “I think the sky is the limit,” he says.

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