Delivering mission critical data communications in the oil and gas sector

Establishing smart grid technologies in the oil and gas industry can be challenging, but Mike Norfield, CEO, Simoco Group, argues that low band data solutions operating over private mobile radio networks can offer a smarter way to deliver automated monitoring and control

Delivering mission critical data communications in the oil and gas sector

The oil and gas sector operates in some of the most inaccessible and harsh environments on our planet. Whether operations are on or off-shore, oil and gas locations need to overcome remote field operations which span large distances while at the same time dealing with dramatically fluctuating weather conditions.

Oil & Gas infrastructures are mission critical systems since they need to adapt to changing demands, while guaranteeing 24/7 availability. In this context, monitoring and control technologies are increasingly required to deliver a complete view of the field. This enables companies to ensure business continuity, avoids injuries to operators, and deliver effective protection against a range of security attacks.

To tackle these challenges many companies in the sector are striving to deliver the dream of smart grid technologies and the oil and gas sector is becoming increasingly reliant on automation. A market report by ARC Advisory Group found that automation expenditures in the exploration, production, and pipelines is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 8%.

The increasing demands of smarter grid systems means that data is also becoming an equally important part of the mission critical mix. It is typically reliable low-band telemetry data that becomes essential for diagnosing problems in the event of problems and that’s why companies in the natural resources and energy markets are seeking the most reliable and secure infrastructure to deliver this information.

The data communications challenge
Setting up a communications infrastructure to support reliable low-band data transmission can be challenging for oil and gas companies that operate in environments where cellular coverage can be intermittent or non-existent, and where installing wired networks has significant cost implications.

While larger amounts of data can be carried across overlaid broadband networks, providing connections to wide bandwidth devices such as smart phones and tablets, this remains an unreliable and sometimes insecure way of transmitting mission critical data.

Many companies are using a mix of telemetry interconnecting technologies that each have limitations. The use of cellular systems, such as GPRS for example, is often patchy. There are also a number of other unlicensed radio frequencies, such as 446 MHz, which are prone to interference and overcrowding and could leave companies exposed in emergency situations.

Digital Mobile Radio (DMR)
Private mobile radio is fast becoming an essential communications solution to support the operational needs of companies in a wide range of industrial sectors, including oil and gas. By their very definition, private mobile radio networks are ‘private’, less open to security threats and less congested than public or broadband networks.

The digital landscape is crowded, though, with a number of public safety digital standards such as TETRA and P25, as well as low cost digital solutions including DMR (Digital Mobile Radio), dPMR (digital Private Mobile Radio), NXDN and PDT (Professional Digital Trunking).
When compared to public cellular services, DMR delivers improved coverage, reliability and resistance, contention, security, group communications and performance.

Essentially, DMR Tier III trunking features a control channel on each radio site and allocates traffic channels on demand making it frequency efficient and enabling a large number of users to share a relatively small number of channels. Radio sites can easily be inter-connected, usually using IP connections, making it possible to deploy systems ranging from a single site to hundreds of sites spread over a large geographical area.

Delivering the smart grid over DMR infrastructure
Today’s oil and gas operators need to do more than just monitor and control operations across vast areas. Automated and remotely delivered communications bring significant benefits such as remote monitoring, network optimisation, delivery of proactive maintenance programmes and the remote implementation of commands and updates.

Using wireless radio infrastructure as the communications carrier, the latest technology enables SCADA applications to be quickly and cost effectively deployed across operational areas. In many instances, the wireless infrastructure is already in situ, enabling even faster deployment.

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) is an industrial automation control system at the core of many modern industries. The term refers to centralised systems which monitor and control entire sites, or complexes of systems spread out over large areas (anything from an industrial plant to a country).

The system consists of a number of remote terminal units (RTUs) which collect field data automatically and connect back to a master station which enables the operator to perform remote control tasks.

In their early days, SCADA systems were designed as telemetry reporting systems with little to no control because of communications bandwidth constraints. Today, SCADA networks consist of many more remote terminal units (RTUs) and stretch beyond monitoring to controlling and supporting new applications.

RTUs and SCADA systems transmitting low band data can be comfortably handled by a narrowband system such as DMR. These systems improve visibility and the performance of geographically dispersed assets, and form the basis for real-time performance management of production and pipeline assets.

New SCADA technologies allow global energy companies to manage their operations remotely in even the most distant and extreme environments, from the Arctic tundra to deep subsea installations.

Exploration activities and new production fields are being developed, monitored, controlled, and optimised globally using advanced SCADA technologies over the robust and reliable DMR infrastructure.

A smarter future
Challenges to oil and gas producers will continue to grow as the world’s supply of energy becomes harder to reach. As sites become increasingly remote, receiving data from them will become an even bigger part of the equation that will lead to increased operating performance and regulatory compliance.

The oil and gas industry has traditionally taken a conservative stance when considering new technologies. Sticking with older equipment or technology that appears to work well can be an easier and less risky solution for equipment repair or replacement.

However, given the growing demand for real-time production data and improved asset performance, this resistance to new technologies is not in the industry’s best interests, and inertia must step aside for progress.

Oil and gas companies are increasingly looking to IT and are leveraging real time information as a way to gain efficiencies, optimise processes, and maximise the output and lifecycle of their assets.

The provision of low band mission critical data services enables these organisations to have greater control over a robust and resilient network. As a result, they are benefiting from the operational and resource efficiencies brought by combining voice and data transmission across a single resilient and available radio network.

This technology is now an essential communications solution to support the operational needs of companies in the oil and gas sector. Low band data solutions operating over DMR offer a smarter way of working with telemetry, remote control, monitoring and M2M communications enabling increased insight and management over systems and resources.

About the author: Mike Norfield is Group CEO of TTG, which includes Simoco, a manufacturer of IP based Professional Mobile Radio products. 


Top Photo: Trans-Alaska Pipeline System by Luca Galuzzi


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