Data helps offshore oilfields solve production challenges

Kinetic mesh networks help deliver real-time information from remote locations.

By Josh Parker, Rajant Corp. June 1, 2016

These days, if you’re not connected, you’re likely to seem more Luddite than low tech-and that includes heavy industries, such as like oil and gas operations. It’s simply not possible to run a successful business without being digital, and the oil and gas industry has responded to this with the rise of the digital oilfield.

For years, the industry was running on outdated or partial data. Users had to download data from multiple—sometimes hundreds—of production sites, as well as download the stored files from USB drives. They then had to analyze the data and wait anywhere from days to weeks to obtain results. Now there is full data available in real time or near real time, so users can look at actual production information and failures in much more granular detail. Engineers don’t need to examine snapshots of certain time frames or windows to determine mean time to failures or average flow rates. Now the data is all right there at their fingertips.

According to a recent report from the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions (DCES) titled, "Connected Barrels: Transforming Oil & Gas Strategies with the Internet of Things (IoT)," there are three business objectives relevant to IoT deployments in the oil and gas industry:

  • Improving reliability
  • Optimizing operations
  • Creating new value.

With the technological convergence of the digital oilfield and IoT comes new ways for oil and gas engineers to meet the challenges of working in harsh environments that tend to lack mobility, scalability, bandwidth, redundancy, and resiliency, and nowhere are these challenges more prominent than in an offshore oilfield. IoT can aid in key operator concerns on an offshore oilfield, including productivity, safety, compliance, and asset protection, but IoT is not helpful unless an oilfield has a reliable way of getting real-time, continuously-streaming data. 

Offshore data

An essential element to include when designing the digital offshore oilfield is the ability to send and receive real-time information. A digital oilfield has devices enabled to proactively and constantly communicate data in real time. An offshore oilfield will have communications on and around the rig itself that have been upgraded to be digital to some extent.

These include floatels and other vessels that surround the platform. There is regular vehicle-to-vehicle communication and some drilling communication: information that now can be vetted and processed in real time. Instead of an engineer going out and working in the field, coming back to a base, and submitting historical data to be processed, the equipment is fitted with sensors that send data continuously to a central collection point.

Using sensors for data collection is nothing new in the oil and gas industry and has existed for more than 50 years. What’s new is the real-time information component. What was missing was the network transport element—getting the data from the offshore equipment to where it needed to go—and now, with IoT and the digital oilfield, there is a multitude of technologies that can assist in data transportation, including wireless, fiber, long term evolution (LTE), or a hybrid of these. There are challenges associated with the various technologies, though: LTE can be unreliable, and fiber can be expensive to place across a sea bed.

In addition, a digital oilfield differs from connected industrial or commercial sites because a standard site is relatively static. One or two pieces of equipment may move around, but generally, the same gate is monitored with the same security system, and all access is provided in the same location. With an oilfield, all assets are constantly in motion—equipment is set up, exists for a while, goes back to the yard, and then returns to the field in a different configuration. An offshore oilfield is even more dynamic. The rig itself is fairly simple, but all of the drilling, cabling, and tug vessels are constantly coming and going, and bobbing up and down. Standard design and equipment cannot support the nomadic state of an offshore oilfield. 

Technology-solving issues

Business challenges on an offshore oilfield are myriad: They include regulatory and environmental compliance, safety, response time to problems, productivity and efficiency, and asset protection—all needing to be managed in a remote, hard-to-access location.

A more recent challenge is the decline in global oil prices, which has created an even greater push to reduce operational costs, increase uptime, and improve processes. The top priority right now for many oilfield managers is driving down the cost of production per barrel, and the more real-time data that can be gathered, the better decisions can be made, and the more efficiently the oilfield can be run.

According to the DCES report, "Increased data capture and analysis can likely save millions of dollars by eliminating as many as half of a company’s unplanned well outages and boosting crude output by as much as 10% over a 2-year period." Reliable remote access and near-real-time data evaluation can help save on production costs as well as aid in other challenges. One option is kinetic mesh wireless networks.

Kinetic mesh networks employ any-node-to-any-node capabilities to continuously and instantaneously route data via the best available traffic path and frequency using a limitless number of nodes. In a mesh network, nodes use channels to create multiple delivery paths for data. If a certain path is compromised for any reason due to antenna failure or power loss to a piece of equipment, for example, the other nodes, or radios, on the pieces of equipment that need to communicate look for an alternative path to deliver the data and change trajectory.

The network stays up and running, and data is sent and received in real time with no delays even in the harshest conditions. Single points of failure are avoided, and the highly mobile network can be redeployed in multiple ways without redesign and without the additional expense of technicians.

In the ever-changing environment of an offshore oilfield, IoT and streaming data via kinetic mesh can help managers see patterns and prevent problems. Equipment can be outfitted with GPS tracking devices to prevent theft. Semi-autonomous or autonomous equipment can be controlled remotely via the wireless nodes appended to sensors, meaning power can be killed before, or at the time of an issue without waiting for an operator to go to the offshore oilfield and turn off a valve or pump. Data, such as engine run time, can allow for proactive maintenance, and can help engineers catch problems with equipment and change their processes, saving money on cost of repair or replacement.

On the safety and compliance side, proper environmental sensor packages can show gas leaks that technicians can’t smell, and control equipment can keep technicians in a safe zone if there is an explosion or blow out. Sensors can detect leaks or changes in pressure and shut off a pipeline automatically. In an environment with no room for error or downtime, compliance management solutions, coupled with wireless nodes and sensors, can track and identify equipment not certified or properly maintained.

Going digital: What to look for

There are a few key elements an oilfield manager or engineer should consider when determining whether an offshore oilfield should advance its data communication capabilities:

  • Accurately evaluate current application needs, but also look at possible upgrade scenarios to future-proof the oilfield and ensure it has what it needs for where it is headed. Many companies will buy a certain amount of equipment and then realize they cannot grow anymore and have maxed out their expansion potential. Build in or plan for expansion in the offshore oilfield.
  • Evaluate the amount of time and dollars spent on manual updates, repairs, measurements, and data collection versus investment in continuous collection of real-time data that can be evaluated offsite. Is there is a way to centralize functions and find new points of efficiency?
  • Evaluate the IT knowledge base and determine whether it is being adequately handled in-house, or whether it benefits the oilfield to partner with a third party, or use additional software or services to manage the oilfield.

An offshore oilfield must be examined as a whole to determine what increased amounts of data will bring and how the data will help manage assets that are harder to reach because of the remote locations. IoT, girded by kinetic mesh networks, is poised to create new value for offshore oilfields, and reform and reinvigorate the production process through reliable, continuous, real-time data, helping keep the industry profitable and moving forward.

Josh Parker is ‎director of product management at Rajant Corp., a private wireless network provider and mobile networking pioneer.

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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.