Big data drilldown part 2: Sensor and data collection technologies advance

This five-part series examines the issues with big data that the industry is facing today and the segments and applications where companies are finding the biggest success. Part 2: As more companies realize the benefits, new sensor and data collection technologies are moving from the lab into the real world—downhole, in the air, and at sea.

By Karen Field August 19, 2015

"This is the decade of big sensing."

That’s how Peter Breunig, general manager of technology management and architecture at Chevron IT, described the state of the industry in his opening keynote speech at the 2014 Rice University’s Oil & Gas High-Performance Computing (HPC) Workshop. His remarks appear in a news article on the university’s website.

Breunig got it right: The proliferation of low-cost sensors, coupled with the industry’s increasing success at collecting data in places and under conditions once considered impenetrable, is driving wider acceptance of new and advanced sensor and data collection technologies. The end goal for companies? Better decision making, greater reliability and safety, affordable ways to find new reserves and predict failures, and cost savings. 

In fact, the development of sensors and data collection technology has been so rapid in the past decade that some industry pundits say that it’s now more of a matter of the market catching up.

"There is an incredible amount of technology out there," said Tim Shea, a senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group with a concentration on upstream oil and gas. "All of the action in the near future is going to be on the application side. And some of those applications are going to be in areas no one has even thought of yet."

The wave is coming

"There’s no shortage of good application ideas," said Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific, a company that designs and operates high-performance, cost-effective unmanned aircraft systems.

As a case in point, he recalled a recent conversation he had with a group of control engineers at an Australian onshore oil and gas company. "They have a very spread-out infrastructure, and the engineers have to drive long distances to do their job. When they saw our high-resolution video, they started brainstorming: ‘Hey, why can’t we just do a visual survey from the air? We just need to make the gauges twice as big and put them on top of the equipment so a drone flying over can capture the image.’"

Shea believes that as more companies go public about their initiatives and report on their successes, that will help to trigger new ideas, help to break down resistance barriers, and increase adoption rates, "which in itself will spur more adoption," he said. "Because no one in upstream wants to be first, they sure as heck do not want to be last."

With a nod to those early adopters, here’s a look at some examples of sensor and data collection technologies that are making inroads into oil and gas industry applications.

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors downhole

Today, interest in MEMS-based sensors is high in the oil and gas industry, due to small size, low cost, large-scale integration, and ability to operate under high temperatures and pressures. Applications range from seismic imaging to detection of gas leaks and monitoring and inspection tasks for increased safety.

No one can forget the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill of April 2010. Investigators concluded that there were weaknesses in the design of the cement barrier used to protect and seal the wellbore. That led to a nitrogen breakout and migration that allowed hydrocarbons to enter the wellbore annulus.

MAST a division of Micromem Applied Sensor Technologies, with expertise in nanoparticle sensor technology, is developing a cement integrity sensor designed to prevent such incidents at new wells.

The sensors are mixed with the cement and remain permanently embedded in the structure. They measure temperature, moisture, and also listen acoustically to normal flow via expected interstitial micro-fractures in the cement. If these microfractures get larger, as in the case of the Deepwater Horizon accident, there would be more unacceptable hydrocarbon flow and more acoustical noise, which the sensors would detect and report via the well’s wireless network in real time. 

In October 2014, MAST’s parent company, Micromem, delivered its first prototype to Saudi Aramco. The particle tracer has the potential to be applied to more than 1 million oil and gas wells. In March 2015, MAST was awarded a second contract with American Oil to build a prototype of the sensor to monitor the integrity of cement case in oil well boreholes to 15,000 ft. CEO Steven Van Fleet sees growing interest in the technology.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of these penny-sized sensors distributed throughout the cement, providing real-time data to the operator," said Van Fleet. "For oil companies to be able to detect an issue in advance of an actual fracture and take preventive measures, that’s going to be a game changer."

Drones in the air

The fact that oil companies operate in remote locations that are risky and costly to send humans into, actually turns out to be a good thing-from a drone’s perspective.

"A lot of these oilfields are in areas where the chance of running into another aircraft at a drone’s altitude (3,000 to 6,000 ft) is nearly zero, whether it’s the Arctic or 30 miles off the coast of Alaska," said Andrew Duggan. "And that’s significant, because air traffic is one of the concerns with the commercial use of drones."

The majority of the industry’s drones are used in operations located outside the U.S. for facility monitoring, pipeline inspection, flare stack inspections, and more. Drone maker Insitu and ConocoPhillips made headlines in 2013 by completing the first certified drone in U.S.-controlled airspace flight 120 miles off the coast of Alaska. In 2014, BP was granted access to conduct aerial surveys of its Alaska oilfields using drones.

One reason drones are making an easy transition to the oil and gas industry is the fact that they are based on proven military technology that has racked up hundreds of thousands of flight hours. "Other than making sure we comply with regulatory approvals to conduct unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations, there’s really very little in the way of modifications, nothing particularly clever or unusual other than refining the suite of sensors," said Duggan.

As industry acceptance of drones as a productivity tool grows, Duggan views the technology as in a transition phase somewhere between experimental trials and real world operations. "Regulatory approvals to conduct UAV operations, which differ from country to country, are an impediment to quicker adoption rates. But progress is being made. Some companies are more advanced (and more forward leaning with this new technology) than others."

Those companies that are starting to make this a regular part of their operations are so far using smaller sub-5 kg systems (both rotary and fixed wing) for tasks such as local infrastructure inspection. These systems are rapidly deployed and can collect high-quality data without the safety risks.

Robots at sea

Oil and gas companies are also experimenting with unmanned autonomous vehicles at sea. One example is the surfboard-shaped robots, called Wave Gliders, from Liquid Robotics, which use both wave-powered and stored solar energy to collect data acoustically from seabed instruments in challenging ocean conditions.

Raw data (via Iridium in SBD mode) is sent in near real time back to an operations center every five minutes. Data are also stored as well as high-resolution mode (as needed) on the glider for data retrieval at the end of a mission.

One advantage of the Wave Glider is that it can go where conventional vessels cannot: It easily operates in frontier areas, such as the Arctic, and close-to-offshore assets such as platforms and rigs, as well as shallow waters. It could also be used to augment or replace more expensive vessels.

"Our first project was with Chevron to estimate the amount of particle suspension in water on the Wheatstone project in Australia," said Sudhir Pai, managing director of Liquid Robotics Oil and Gas (LROG), a joint venture with Schlumberger that employs Liquid Robotics’ autonomous vehicle technology to develop innovative services for the oil and gas industry.

Recently, around the Wheatstone area of Northwest Australia, Wave Gliders equipped with turbidity and meteorology sensors were deployed for Chevron to conduct reliable baseline surveys prior to the start of their upstream and downstream dredging operations. A total of 1,424 nautical miles were covered over a 60-day period. "Additional time-lapse measurements will be taken during and after the operations to validate environmental compliance," said Pai.

On July 1, 2015, ConocoPhillips deployed six Wave Gliders in the Barents Sea for a two-month mission, the third in a series of pilots conducted with LROG. "The crafts are collecting a wide range of information, such as wave height, current speed and direction, temperature, and wind speed and direction," said Roy Leadholm, manager, New Exploration Ventures, ConocoPhillips. "The onboard sensors are also investigating areas to determine if hydrocarbons are coming from natural seeps in areas that have been identified from satellite images. This is valuable information for an offshore exploration and production environment."

To date, LROG has completed 28 projects with 14 oil and gas companies and logged 1,850 days at sea for industry projects. With that amount of real-world experience, Pai said that the technology is moving from the lab to the mainstream.

"As Wave Glider technology deployments continue to expand, offshore oil and gas operators continue building confidence in their ability to solve some of the industry’s exploration and environmental monitoring challenges," Pai said. "The only barrier to faster adoption rates is the time it takes for market acceptance of any new technology."

What’s coming down the pipeline?

Many of the examples discussed are part of a managed service, whereby the supplier provides the sensing, communication, big data storage, analytics, and visualization. Some industry observers see this "sensing-as-a-service" as the biggest opportunity in sensor and data collection technologies; and customers are clamoring for such an offering.

"If you take a look at the current sensor networks out there, a lot of them are very convoluted and expensive and they take years to deploy. What I’m seeing is more manufacturers coming up with solutions in which they deploy the sensor, they store the data, and they deliver it in the form that you need it," said Dave Lafferty, an oil and gas industry consultant who was formerly with the BP chief technology office. "It’s going to get to a point where trying to buy conventional sensor solutions will be like trying to buy a phone today that’s not smart."

By offering this end-to-end sensing-as-a-service, Lafferty reasons that companies are going to start delivering products that have immediate value to the customer and accelerate adoption of new sensing technologies. In fact, companies such as WellAware have been very successful deploying this full-stack offering in unconventional reservoirs like the Eagle Ford shale basin.

Coming up in part 3: The latest advances and applications of networking and communications technologies for big data.

– Karen Field, a former mechanical design engineer, has more than two decades of experience covering the electronics and automation industries. Edited by Eric R. Eissler, editor-in-chief, Oil & Gas Engineering,

Tips for selecting a sensor technology

  • Focus on the results, not the specific technology.
  • Measure what you really need to measure—and sometimes that means you will need to measure the property indirectly (i.e., corrosion).
  • Ensure the sensor technology is functional in the environment where you need to take the measurement.
  • Ensure that you can securely and reliably communicate the data back at the rates and in the timeframe required.
  • Look for situations that have the potential to leave data stranded and eliminate them.
  • Confirm that you can extract something useful and actionable from the data you collect. 

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.