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BP's investment in sensor technology began a mere 18 months ago, during one of the company's Blue Chalk eventstwo-day seminars that Daru's team holds twice a year to demonstrate the value of emerging digital technologies to company executives. "It's a carefully crafted event in terms of what technology means to BP," says Daru. "We bring in various case studies or visionaries who can paint the landscape about what the possibilities are, and then the internal executives can make that translation into how it applies to their business." After hosting a Blue Chalk event on sensors in May 2003, Daru was bombarded with ideas from business managers, and his team had to pick which projects would be of greatest value to the company. "We look at sensory networks as complete solutions to business problems," says Daru. "This is not just about putting sensors on pieces and parts. This is total process change."
In the U.K., BP is using sensors to monitor its customers' liquefied petroleum gas fuel tanks. The company has seen a 25 percent improvement in efficiency. "Before, we had no way of knowing how much inventory was in those tanks," Daru says. The tanks had gauges but customers would forget to look at them until it was too late. As a result, BP would either rush to fill empty tanks, or send a tanker truck far too early to fill a minimally depleted supply. Thanks to the sensors, Daru says, "we have substantially improved the use of our fleet and increased customer satisfaction."
A number of other projects are also under way at BP, including fitting refinery workers with special sensors that track them for safety. "If you have lone workers in a plant, it would be important to track where they are to avoid hazardous areas where they may be at risk," Daru says. His team is also working to ensure pipeline integrity and worker safety at sites along its more than 11,000 miles of pipeline throughout the U.S. When a construction company informs BP of work being done near a pipeline, BP will install a portable geo-sensing network that will alert workers when they get too close to the pipeline. "We want to make sure that the whole operation is very safe," he says.
But Daru stresses the need for a business case in all his company's endeavors. "All of this has to be cost effective. We can't just try out something that works in the lab but doesn't translate to a real business solution."