Oil and gas facilities are typically not in areas with large population centres, which means fixed-line infrastructure is often not available nearby. Therefore, many operators have turned to wireless to transmit and access the data they require to keep their operations running.
Even though the oil and gas industry is known for the amount of wealth it generates, oil companies don’t enter markets with a blank cheque written for their communications needs. They’re looking for three things: cost efficiency, operational efficiency and systems that keep their workers and equipment safe.
‘Energy markets across the globe are facing volatility, fragility and increased competitiveness,’ says Kamal Mokrani, VP EMEA of marketing and sales at InfiNet Wireless.
‘In such a climate, oil and gas industries are compelled to optimise their exploration and production activities facilitated by digital technologies and instant data, voice and video communications.
‘Most oil and gas sources and production installations occur in remote, inhospitable areas that are often difficult to reach, and in many cases these are crude oils that are not easy to extract and therefore require several oil wells with sensors which have to be monitored and telemetry that has to be accessed. Such installations can be spread over hundreds of square kilometres and are often in off-shore, desert or inaccessible locations that are uneconomic to reach by conventional wired technologies such as fibre and copper,’ says Mokrani.
Compounding those issues is the need to operate complex and sensitive machinery and equipment in an intrinsically safe environment. ‘Oil and gas facilities are often in remote areas and oil fields are very big,’ says Luke D’Arcy, VP of marketing at Neul. ‘One shale gas field I know of in Texas is 16,000 square miles in area. It’s like a wilderness and there’s no network coverage.
‘There has been a big boom in the oil industry, which is seeing the adoption of new technologies like fracking and directional drilling,’ continues D’Arcy. ‘Equipment operated is very hi-tech and in order to work well it needs to connect to the internet. Geologists, for example, used to look after the drilling in the field, but now they can do it from a centralised location.’
Applications that make better use of personnel’s time have obvious value, as do those that prolong the life or maintain oil industry equipment that can cost millions of dollars. ‘Companies are looking for systems that ensure expensive equipment doesn’t suffer damage through large vibrations,’ says Ian Robinson, group MD at The IMC Group, which has developed devices for shock and vibration monitoring that connect wirelessly across a site to deliver data to control or operations centres.
‘There’s the routine preventative maintenance angle to address. Time is critical because equipment downtime is so costly in these industries. If oil and gas companies can see the start of a machine going wrong, they can take preventative action during scheduled downtime.
‘Another thing to monitor is abuse of the equipment. Rig managers lease the rigs and equipment to oil companies and want to make sure their workers are not driving the equipment too hard. For example, a drill can jam when it hits a different surface and the operator needs to jump it to free it up. However, that has to be done in a controlled way,’ says Robinson.
Production and delivery
Applications are also relevant to creating efficiencies in the production and delivery process. ‘A host of wireless communications and sensor networks are deployed in oil and gas extraction platforms, production wells, refineries, underwater and overground facilities focused on monitoring the production process and providing data and voice communications that enhance production and ensure security, health and safety,’ adds Mokrani.
‘Digital networks are instrumental in the collection of critical data from offshore drilling platforms, remote well sites and outlying production locations, as well as from monitoring facilities along pipelines, at pumping stations and from remotely located field operational personnel.
‘Automated real-time monitoring and control of the oil and gas installations and telemetry stations can be achieved by high-speed machine-to-machine communications. These, coupled with the need for video surveillance and voice/data communications between employees at remote ground locations, on offshore platforms and sea vessels, demand the use of reliable, high-speed broadband digital networks,’ points out Mokrani.
However, where there is no core network, wireless or satellite are the only options available. Satellite has its drawbacks, says D’Arcy: ‘Most fields have no core so they use satellite links, which mean dishes have to be very accurately positioned and cost many thousands of dollars per month for a relatively slow satellite link.’
Wireline technologies are seldom an option, even in locations such as refineries.
‘Refineries are constantly being retrofitted with technologies to reduce operating costs and improve health and safety,’ adds D’Arcy.
‘Sensors for vibration, temperature and other indicators somehow have to get signals back from the sensor and into the local network.
‘They could wire it all up with fibre-optic cables,’ he continues, ‘but the safety requirements of these critical environments makes it very expensive to put any wires in at all even where it’s physically possible.
‘It would cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to shut down a refinery to do it, so they will try to use wireless technology. But Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies don’t work well in a cluttered environment, so they need to deploy a large number of access points.’
D’Arcy advocates the use of white space technology, which makes secondary use of spectrum, such as unused television broadcast channels.
Oil and gas facilities, by their nature, are not usually located in areas of high population, so there is lots of unused yet licensed spectrum for white space radio to exploit.
‘It has fantastic propagation,’ he says. ‘You put up two or three [access points] to cover a whole facility reliably. The oil and gas industry is composed of big, well-funded companies which are early adopters of technology. Their facilities are generally not a good match for population centres, so white space gives them the spectrum they need.’
The critical nature of communications in the oil and gas industry means that it is prepared to invest in new technologies. Wireless is now widely deployed for both short and long range communications –provided it’s reliable, secure and intrinsically safe.