Oil and gas companies operate in diverse locations and have to contend with harsh climates, geopolitical instability and poor infrastructure. Wireless communications are therefore of heightened importance and customers in the industry demand great resilience and security.
‘What sets the oil and gas industry apart from other sectors is the importance of staying connected throughout all stages of a project lifecycle,’ says Gerbrand Schalkwijk, the vice president of enterprise energy at satellite provider Inmarsat.
‘Maintaining reliable communications is critical for speeding up the exploration process, reducing downtime, and keeping crew and assets safe and secure. From regulatory compliance requirements to keeping product flowing to bandwidth intensive crew welfare solutions, having a robust communications solution from a reliable provider is a fundamental part of operations in the oil and gas industry,’ observes Schalkwijk.
Safe and reliable
Others see safety, in addition to reliability, as the prime demand. ‘The key issue in the oil and gas market is safety critical communications,’ says Grant Notman, head of sales and marketing at Wood & Douglas.
‘Many companies are specifying intrinsically safe products to ensure that there is no risk of danger from fire or explosion. The other key aspect is high levels of reliability in a durable package. The oil and gas industry operates everywhere from under water to underground and also in some of the most politically unstable parts of the world. The industry’s two key priorities are safety and durability,’ says Notman.
Brian Anderson, the vice president of marketing at Sierra Wireless, sees resilient solutions as absolutely critical, along with safety. ‘The key differentiator in the oil and gas industry is the environment as it can pose significant challenges to the resilience and reliability of a product,’ he says.
‘Just imagine a gas pipeline in Northern Canada where the climate is baking hot in summer and frozen solid in winter. Such a hazardous environment requires an intrinsically safe product that needs to be reliable, especially when deployed over a large geographic area.’
In addition, Schalkwijk points out that oil and gas exploration and production are becoming increasingly automated, creating a greater reliance on data communications to power the digital oilfield. ‘Without a highly robust data network, efficiencies in automation within the oilfield are hard to sustain,’ he adds.
For Stephen Patrick, a director at Wireless Excellence, there are a range of applications for wireless in oil and gas which need to be considered carefully. ‘Projects we’ve been involved in for oil and gas companies involve several parts of their networks, specifically,’ he says.
‘Wireless links from land out to offshore oil rigs typically carry data, voice and video services to the rigs. The links are designed to be resilient to cope with a wide range of environmental conditions, including storms, dust, sand, salt water, waves, and generally harsh climates, and challenging transmission environments for radio and microwave links.’
Patrick adds that companies also use wireless links in cities where infrastructure is poor to communicate between sites. Finally, the needs of energy exploration companies are highly specific. ‘We have provided wireless links for energy exploration companies, to use to connect seismic sensors across obstacles such as rivers, roads and other places where cables cannot be run,’ he says.
‘The precision of the survey depends on the resolution of the sensor network and accuracy of the data, so these wireless links are critical in completing the survey results – from which, energy companies can decide where the most efficient places to drill to access the underground reserves.’
Security and precision seem to be the key demands and the industry seems less price sensitive if it can be assured that the solutions achieve these. ‘This is true of this market as much as any other,’ says Notman. ‘But it also depends on circumstances. We provide wireless services to – amongst others, the provider of gasometers in the UK, offshore
oil exploration and oilfields in Africa. The more critical the communications required by the industry, the less price sensitive the solution.’
Exploration data, for example, is extremely sensitive. ‘Most corporate customers demand high security when considering any aspects of their IT networks – including wireless,’ says Patrick. ‘Reliability of communication is essential for all modern networks and customers expect not only reliable wireless equipment, but properly designed networks, as well as localised support and maintenance provision. The total budget for a wireless network usually includes all aspects including the installation and maintenance.’
For Anderson, higher stakes means a heightened security requirement. ‘Most industrial applications require both security and precision, the difference between sectors lies in the different levels of risk associated with the consequences from a product failing to deliver on these requirements,’ he says. ‘With high stakes in the oil and gas business, product performance and specification becomes the biggest driver in the buyer’s mind.’
That has an impact on how oil and gas organisations procure services. ‘For some applications, such as seismic survey – portability is an absolute must – the survey equipment is laid out and sites prepared, the seismic charges detonated, and then everything rolled back up and packed away for deployment for the next survey,’ says Patrick.
‘Time costs money in any industry, and energy surveys are no exception, including when the conditions are harsh, such as frozen tundra or deserts, where unwanted additional time in the field can be painful for people and equipment alike.
‘For drilling sites, wireless equipment can be moved around as the application and sites demand, increasing flexibility and enhancing the ability to adapt to changing conditions,’ adds Patrick. ‘Wireless of course is a highly portable technology, and links can be taken around the world and redeployed at ease.’
In-house and outsourced
Third parties are usually engaged to manage sites and it is those that specify communications. ‘It varies by company but the larger companies prefer managed services,’ says Schalkwijk.
‘They hire communications companies as a contactor to manage their communications – or at least a large part of their communications.
‘If wireless refers to all forms of wireless/radio, then the larger companies contract these services out using RFPs, which they manage via service level agreements. Some companies have a mixed approach where they have considerable in-house expertise to purchase, provision, and maintain portions of their own communications infrastructure.’
Notman also sees that: ‘Most of our business comes as OEM into a specialist company that then sells into the industry,’ he says. ‘The oil and gas industry tends to secure the services of a supplier who will then look for specialist companies to fulfil specific parts of the roll out.’