‘There is this big opportunity for wireless instrumentation, typically all the pots and pans, all the pipelines to the vessels. They need a lot of measurements because we want to know what’s going on there,’ says Berry Mulder. ‘In the old days there was always the trade off between the cost of installing them and what you actually need, and with wireless instrumentation we think we can push that boundary a bit more.’
Shell is using wireless communication in measurements of temperature, pressure levels, vibration and corrosion, and for worker mobility applications like voice, video and field access to databases. Mature and cost-effective wireless will change how Shell designs and operates facilities, enabling more remote monitoring and a more efficient field crew. For Shell, achieving a lower cost of deployment around additional measurements is a necessity. As Mulder explains, the cost of putting wires into pipelines can be an expensive and awkward exercise just to get a few temperature measurements.
‘Wireless really helps and that actually makes you accept it sometimes. So measurement is a big one. It typically runs on different kinds of protocols. All those measurements are not just a depression in temperature kind of measurement, but also vibration and corrosion, so we call it collision monitoring kind of measurements, because really it will make a difference in our industry in the near future and I guess the more we get out of that, the better.’
For the past six years, Mulder has provided insight as to how the firm should move forward.
‘I think we are getting there with wireless,’ he says. ‘It’s really about how we’re doing in our process facilities. So drilling and production platforms, refineries, those kind of areas.’
And although new standards for wireless are appearing that are instrument-driven standards, the problem is that they can do these kind of applications by multi-hopping, points out Mulder.
‘So over one pipeline all those centres open each others’ message and pass it through,’ he adds. ‘The step forward would be simplification using something that’s microwave-based from the telco area but these also come with their own complexities.
‘We want to do a lot more but we can’t justify the cost of it today based on today’s solutions, which are telco or microwave-based and fairly complex and thus very expensive,’ he adds. ‘Telco solutions have issues as well because you need to generate power through generators or solar power packs.’
Mulder says he is driving for the commoditisation of things like Wi-Fi because they come with a huge bowl of solutions for him, acting as an enabler for further types of measurement and insight that can be harnessed.
‘There is a lot of wireless instrumentation we need at both refineries, offshore rigs and pipelines, but we want to see more measurements and there is more opportunity for Wi-Fi for mobility-based solutions and Toughbooks. Operators can now see the strategies of the plant, while outside we can reduce the need to walk up and down control rooms in harsh environments, making them safer and more efficient. Also, mobile video is a very interesting one for us.’
In the case of mobile video, Mulder says its main benefit is increasing safety for peripheral personnel. At present, when something occurs in the field, experts must be on hand to help make decisions – something that may result in part of a facility being shut down until he or she arrives.
‘We think we can really speed that up by having this mobile video functionality so that the expert can look over the shoulder of the local guy and make his diagnosis better and faster from wherever he is on the planet,’ explains Mulder.
Such technology also removes exposure to risk because it negates the need to send experts out on planes to remote locations. So it’s faster, cheaper and a lot safer as far as those in the boardroom are concerned.
‘That variation between the field worker and a remote expert is a real big one,’ says Mulder. ‘If you also compare that to people taking snapshot photos and emailing them to be looked at, you can see the power of real-time interaction and collaboration from talking to the person in the field and it should lead to better decisions. Connectivity is crucial here though, so it does put a lot of requirements on the bandwidth and the latency of this technology.’
Interestingly, Mulder says his experiences with satellite haven’t been optimal and that the better connectivity will definitely be appreciated.
‘Imagine if you go deep down in a rig. You have so much metal around and you just can’t see the satellite. It’s the same as 3G if you have a funny network with a few gateways around you and you may not penetrate all the metal or inside the metal structure,’ he says.
According to Mulder, Shell has actively been ‘stimulating’ 3G telcos to provide networks but says it’s a market they are not really familiar with.
‘For some locations, like offshore wells, we just don’t have 3G out there. We have discussions with those telcos and ask if they can provide a network for us and you can imagine what kindof discussions they are. I think we’ll get there, but it’s early days for that,’ he says. ‘The realism comes when we talk about business cases.’
Much of this centres on a volume market and the telco spend involved just to get offshore. ‘If we want to have a 3G network on an offshore platform and we say we have fifteen users, it’s a very short discussion, so either we pay a lot more for this service or it’s not going to happen,’ he adds.
Mulder says integration is always a huge issue with offshore and has to be tempered with a softer approach to expectations as telcos and companies like Shell bid to get things right.
‘With a Wi-Fi network, where do you plug it in on an offshore platform? What’s your basic infrastructure and how does it go into the Shell IT world?’ asks Mulder. ‘We are bringing two worlds together, but the telco has to go outside Shell and people don’t like that. I think we still have a lot of people scared about the security risks, and security is
a big thing for us.’
With some suppliers claiming they can save Shell as much as 90% in cabling costs and associated work by using wireless as the link between instruments, Shell is actively running several pilots and trials to gain confirmation of this.
‘Of course we’re attracted to those kind of savings,’ he says. ‘But we are not just interested in reducing the cost of cabling. As I said in the beginning, there’s actually more value in having more sensing for the same cost. If the 90% figure is true then we can deploy 10 times as many sensors for the same cost and that probably represents more value than the cost saving itself.’
Going forward, Mulder says there is a huge potential for wireless that’s recognised industry-wide, even though some remain sceptical because much of this still doesn’t fix, plug and play.
‘There is an element of what we call demographics occurring, where we see younger people coming into the industry expecting this kind of functionality,’ he adds. ‘However, we are typically quite conservative, perhaps a decade behind collectively. We want to catch up but it will take some serious getting used to each other from the p