Wireless

The oilfield of the future will include a mobile wireless network

Take a new approach to connectivity with wireless mesh.
By Todd Rigby January 28, 2019
Courtesy: Rajant Corp.

The digital oilfield combines sensor technologies, cloud-based Big Data analytics, and other emergent technologies to reduce unplanned downtime, increase asset optimization, and improve operational efficiency, including in scenarios such as the following:

  • Sensors on a rig detect abnormalities (such as temperature fluctuations) and send an alert.
  • Engineers in an integrated operations center receive the alert and perform a diagnosis via interactive 3-D models.
  • Surveillance drones investigate the rig and stream photos and videos in real time.
  • Predictive data analytics determine maintenance needs based on drone data and send the parts order to the supply chain.
  • Delivery drones bring the parts from the warehouse to the rig.
  • Engineers receive maintenance orders on mobile devices and use virtual models on tablets and augmented reality data on smart glasses to perform maintenance.

To support technologies like drones and smart watches, however, oil & gas operators need a robust, reliable, and mobile network that ensures connectivity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Many oilfield operators face connectivity challenges and are forced to watch productivity slow to a halt as cellular and traditional wireless networks struggle to keep up with emergent technologies. Connectivity to cell towers, few and far between as they are in remote areas, can be further hindered by factors like distance, rugged terrain, or extreme weather conditions. Personnel and assets can be left stranded. What oil & gas industry participants need is a complete mobile network that can move as one with an oilfield.

Oilfield mobility

Oilfields don’t always have enough existing communications infrastructure located within range. But what if network infrastructure could instead move directly to where it was needed, rapidly expanding coverage to that area across all assets and machines?

This mobile infrastructure also could spread as far and wide as a site requires, flexibly augmenting or creating a network ad hoc to provide ubiquitous coverage across an oilfield, no matter how large it is. As more connected devices and machines join an oilfield’s operations, new infrastructure would simply roll in to provide the increased support required, as well as work with the nodes already installed on the numerous moving and static field assets.

With a mobile communications infrastructure, the many moving assets that make up an oilfield, from equipment to vehicles to people, could take robust connectivity with them as they travelled. The network would simply follow along, dodging line-of-sight issues caused by large equipment, and connecting hot zones to allow operators to maintain connectivity to, communications with, and control over all the “things” that empower productive operations.

Figure 1. A kinetic mesh network features node- and frequency-level redundancy to dynamically route around interference, signal blockages, or other potential challenges. Courtesy: Rajant Corp.

Figure 1. A kinetic mesh network features node- and frequency-level redundancy to dynamically route around interference, signal blockages, or other potential challenges. Courtesy: Rajant Corp.

Giving the network “wheels” means that even outer-edge communications would be reliable, providing direct connection to a control center.

To support this strategy, wireless mesh networks are ideal for an oilfield because of their mobility, flexibility of scale, and reliability.

Wireless mesh networks

Oil & gas operators can kick-start their organization’s journey to the digital oilfield by deploying a kinetic mesh network topology. This type of network allows multiple nodes to connect, broaden, and strengthen the network as necessary.

Each node acts as a compact, rugged, transportable, mini cell tower. Thus, anything in the organization’s infrastructure can be turned into networking equipment.

Compared with a regular cellular network, which can only make limited connections, a kinetic mesh network can communicate peer-to-peer seamlessly, via numerous connections, forming an adaptable, dynamic network that provides reliable wide-range communications practically anywhere. Nodes integrate with existing infrastructure to rapidly extend coverage, communicating with and controlling roaming assets across a site.

Line-of-sight issues cease to be a problem. If terrain or moving assets interrupt a cell tower’s line of sight, connectivity can be obstructed with no way around it. Kinetic mesh nodes are mobile, generating more lines of sight, and the mesh networking technology dynamically selects the fastest path from hundreds of potential options to route around interference, signal blockage, or other potential challenges.

A kinetic mesh network features node- and frequency-level redundancy, with nodes making multiple simultaneous connections. No connections need be broken for new ones to be made—keeping critical oilfield data intact.

A case study

Today’s oilfield operators manage remote wells across hundreds of square miles of rugged terrain, manually retrieving information from each well-head and reporting back to the command center weekly. This process is long, tedious, and potentially unsafe. The data collected on each weekly trip virtually is redundant once it reaches the command center.

To ensure real-time data, increase production, and decrease failures of semi-autonomous down-hole pumps, one Texas oilfield deployed a kinetic mesh network.

The oilfield uses semi-autonomous down-hole pumps. These pumps have data loggers on the wellheads, which workers use to set the speed at which the pump brings oil to the surface to be collected and processed. Setting a speed that is too fast risks the hole running dry and the pump burning up, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for total repair and removal.

To avoid these costs, the wells were operated conservatively. The pumps only were visited every week or so, so pump speed was on data that was outdated as soon as the workers left the field.

To address this challenge, the oil company deployed a kinetic mesh network that could connect the pumps and send all production data to a central office in real time, eliminating any need for technicians to go into the field to pull data from each individual well.

Technicians in the central office are alerted immediately if there is a production drop on any well. By monitoring the field’s production remotely and in real time, the operators maximize production while eliminating unnecessary down-hole pump failures.

The kinetic mesh network enables remote equipment operation and allows the company to run the pumps at the correct speed based on oil conditions at a given well, increasing profits and delivering return on investment within months.

Kinetic mesh networks give oil & gas operators secure connectivity to access and act on increasing data volumes. Automation of processes and machinery, precision drilling, wellhead communications, automated drilling and pumping, drones for surveillance and inspection, and production control and reporting all benefit from a successful transition into the digital age. All can be supported by a kinetic mesh network.

The future of the oilfield

Oil & gas field environments are tempestuous and unpredictable, even before throwing network and connectivity issues into the mix. Rapid developments in technology are disrupting organizations’ current operating models and pushing for change, forcing companies to update their thinking when it comes to technology.

Figure 2. Oil field operators face connectivity challenges that hinder productivity when cellular and traditional wireless networks struggle to keep up with emergent technologies. Courtesy: Rajant Corp.

Figure 2. Oil field operators face connectivity challenges that hinder productivity when cellular and traditional wireless networks struggle to keep up with emergent technologies. Courtesy: Rajant Corp.

Oil & gas organizations are investing in mobility, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and the cloud. Over the next three to five years, investments will shift to Big Data and analytics applications, including artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and wearables.

Yet to achieve a true digital oilfield, the network infrastructure will need overhauling to accommodate increasing bandwidth demands and numbers of network devices.

A reliable network starts with reliable hardware. Oil & gas operators need more from their networks. Without a trade off of one feature for another, kinetic mesh networks provide oil & gas operations with high-speed, mobile, reliable, and scalable bandwidth.

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Todd Rigby
Author Bio: Todd Rigby is director of sales for Rajant Corp.