07 Sep 2012 05:13 PM

Keeping a watchful eye on oil and gas sites

Gianni Minetti, president and CEO of Paradox Engineering, explains the benefits of using wireless sensor networks to improve the control of oil and gas site performance and help maximise production efficiency

Keeping a watchful eye on oil and gas sites

With one million producing wells worldwide and an expected 42% increase of reserves by 2030, the oil industry is likely to continue its growth path in the next decade. Natural gas is also entering a sort of ‘golden age’, since the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that its use could double over the next 25 years to account for a quarter of the world’s energy demand.

However, increasing volumes don’t necessarily mean increasing profits: nowadays, oil and gas companies need to improve control over site performance and maximise production efficiency if they want to achieve their financial goals. No doubt the evolution of exploration and production technologies is fundamental to increasing production while cutting costs, but relevant results can be obtained by revising data management processes to ensure that decisions are made as quickly as possible and, above all, based on consistent and reliable information.

The increasing need for real-time production monitoring can be successfully satisfied through a comprehensive and secure approach to data collection, transport and analysis. Companies can only unlock the value of information coming from the production workflow if they have a solid infrastructure to collect data from wells, refineries, production plants, pipelines
and facilities.

They then have to streamline this huge amount of information into their ICT systems, where it will be stored and processed in order to extract key and relevant information to increase efficiency and prevent loss in production.

The challenge of condition monitoring is even more complex if we consider that oil exploration interests tend to move to harsh areas, such as offshore or in the Arctics, where the highest volumes are expected. As for natural gas, conventional sources will continue to represent the greater part of global supplies, but unconventional sources (shale gas or coal bed methane, for instance) will become increasingly important, therefore reinforcing the need for strict production monitoring.

How do you collect and transport data coming from remote and even hazardous environments? In many cases, wired infrastructures are already in place, and companies are unlikely to upgrade the network or add new data points because of the associated costs.

In a typical oil or gas facility, thousands of sensors and data points are needed to ensure proper asset monitoring, with hundreds of thousands of metres of cables used to connect these devices. If we calculate that a brand new offshore platform has approximately 800km of wiring and that cable costs alone may vary from US$120 to US$6,000 per metre, it’s easy to understand why oil and gas companies are eager to protect their past investments and are not open to possible alternatives.

However, being stuck to wired process and sensor networks may prevent companies from successfully facing emerging challenges such as market demand or regulatory changes, which require better performance and efficiency by increasing data collection frequency or installing additional data points (i.e. to monitor emissions or new security parameters).

Traditional infrastructures are generally complex to expand or integrate, primarily in hard-to-reach locations or harsh environments where wired connectivity and wired network could be difficult, unreliable, too expensive or simply not viable.

Getting to the next level

Wireless sensor networks offer oil and gas companies immediate and measurable benefits, including improved performance, greater flexibility and reduced costs for installation and ongoing maintenance. Wireless data acquisition and transmission allows companies to have deeper, more granular and accurate information from production assets, therefore enabling effective plant monitoring and supporting real-time decisions, thanks to the possibility of feeding all data directly into corporate ICT systems.

As for the initial investment, a wireless technology project can cost up to 50-70% less than the wired option – considering hardware/material costs, engineering, installation, and global administration and management.

In addition, several benefits are worth highlighting: increased operational reliability and system uptime, increased operator and engineer productivity, improved asset utilisation and personnel safety and many others.

Of the several options on the market, the most interesting approach seems to be to go for open standard, scalable and vendor independent wireless networks, so as to offer the best risk/return for the investment.

For example, that option would not force any change to existing data points, allowing wireless devices to be implemented directly over the current sensor infrastructure, without requiring any infrastructure upgrade. They would allow customers to build one network and add additional applications when needed, at a fraction of the initial cost, in a plug and play mode.

RF penetration, noise immunity, dynamic adaptation of network topology should be evaluated, since both parameters are particularly critical for reliable data transmission in oil and gas plants.

Industrial wireless sensor network solutions generally use RF transmission on 2.4GHz or above, which often proves to be inefficient in congested environments and features a low penetration factor.

Solutions based on IETF open standards – such as 6lowPAN – on sub-GHz ISM band with full mesh topologies should be preferred, since they grant higher penetration, noise immunity and dynamic adaptability to changes in the surrounding environments.

Other benefits of wireless sensor network solutions are more difficult to quantify, but still worth listing: as the system grows and more points are monitored and additional applications added, more data will be added into the company knowledge systems. If the choice has been for a bidirectional, M2M wireless network, instrument calibration and equipment diagnosis can be performed remotely and more often – thus reducing equipment failures or forced shutdowns.

To further support the above listed benefits, most valid wireless sensor network solutions require no software installations, no heavy server side operations, and very little maintenance. In short,
they provide almost unmanned deployment coupled with a self-organising, self-healing, adaptive and fault tolerant network.

This is important for all industries, but particularly relevant for oil and gas companies. Considering the harsh locations where plants are usually installed, a shrinking workforce and budgetary constraints, no complexity in implementation, roll out and maintenance processes can be afforded.

Authentication, authorisation, strong encryption – in a word, security – the set of features required, along with an extended range of temperature and hazard/explosion safe hardware, web-based management applications to further streamline configuration and management, and ultra low power technology coupled with long life battery operation (more than 8 years), all of which help to streamline labour and personnel intervention, and overall efficiency.

Satellite networks

One final remark about the choice of connectivity technologies: selecting a wireless sensor network ready to scale up from narrowband to broadband for data uplinking to the HQ is an attractive alternative to provide highly reliable connectivity in typical oil and gas plant locations, where landlines are unreliable, difficult to access or simply non-existent.

Working with a satellite network provider – or even better with a virtual network operator – is an interesting option to consider when developing tailored solutions and, if necessary, hybrid infrastructures for business continuity applications and redundant communications.

The oil and gas industry represents an example of very high complexity in real-time production and condition monitoring, where wireless sensor network solutions can be particularly successful in providing an effective approach to data collection and transport for overall plant efficiency.

Thanks to innovative wireless sensor network technologies, oil and gas companies have the opportunity to leverage all the value in the information coming from their assets and production workflow — but lessons from this market are useful and applicable for all industrial organisations with dispersed plants and facilities that need monitoring.



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