Internet of Things and the oilfield

We are living in an increasingly connected world and this connectivity poses the question: “How will it affect the oilfield?” The implications from this are profound and will affect all industries over the next few years.

By Frank Braswell July 14, 2015

More articles appearing in the news and in trade publications speak on the Internet of Things (IoT). The connected device growth rate over the past five years is astonishing. In 2008, Internet-connected devices outnumbered people for the first time, and growth continues with no end in sight.

IoT in the oilfield

Imagine a pumper at a wellsite with a cell phone or radio as a connected device. As the pumper moves around the site, a great deal of visual, auditory, and thermal data can be collected and reported. Not only can the pumper gather data, but an analysis of site conditions can be processed, and the results reported via the communication device. Ideally, around-the-clock site coverage is desired. However, having someone on-site 24/7 is cost prohibitive, as is the idea of heavily instrumenting a wellsite. This will begin to change with the application of IoT technologies to oil and gas production.

IoT will touch key areas that operators are concerned about: productivity, safety, compliance, asset protection, and environmental stewardship. Several technology advances make IoT possible: small and inexpensive components, greater functionality, sensor technology, high-speed wireless communications, new Internet services, greater computing speeds, and high-density storage technologies. As these areas improve, IoT will proliferate into more aspects of oil production and expand to smaller producers. 

Another consideration is that smartphones will become an integral part of the IoT experience. Getting actionable data needed for site operation will no longer be tied to a desktop computer. For this to happen, installation of IoT systems must be simple and system operation must be easy to comprehend and use. Relating that to smartphone usage, the device is extremely complex, but the interaction is made simple with the use of icons, color, shapes, and movement on the screen. Interaction with IoT systems will be visual and intuitive, also based on interaction with mobile devices.


Before anything else, an IoT system must increase productivity before owner/operators will even consider it. For most, monitoring tank levels is at the top of the list, especially for crude oil. If the tanks are remotely monitored, there are a number of immediate benefits, as numerous manual steps are eliminated to get data from the field to the office. This makes it much easier to generate royalty reports and manage production rates. Reporting in real time or near real time allows operators to respond to production problems much faster, saving time and money.

Another benefit is displaying production data automatically on a smartphone. This allows field and office personnel to view wellsite information together and take appropriate actions. This also shows the effectiveness of a modern visual user interface.

Brine tanks can be monitored as well. High- and low-level alarms can be vitally important to maintaining dynamic processes at the wellsite. Productivity enhancement can also be achieved by monitoring vibration and heat from bearings and motors to detect fault conditions and predict maintenance needs.

Thus, IoT can enhance productivity with the deployment of various sensors throughout the wellsite, along with the display of actionable data and real-time messaging.


Oilfields are hazardous by nature due to high pressures, moving machinery, high voltage, and toxic liquids and gasses. In addition to worker safety, consider thievery and copper theft as workplace risks. IoT technology has the potential to reduce the risk of injury.

Monitoring and reporting of toxic gasses, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and methane at the wellsite give workers warning of hazardous conditions. Wind speed and direction reporting are also helpful as workers approach the site.

Sensors monitoring pressure, temperature, levels, flows, and other critical parameters can be programmed to indicate readings that are out-of-bounds and dangerous, so workers can be aware of hazards as they approach the wellsite. Warnings can be communicated via text messages and special screen displays on mobile devices. Unauthorized personnel can be indicated by vehicle detection sensors, visual surveillance cameras, and audio monitoring, alerting operators to potential problems.

Mobile devices can be programmed to track workers’ locations and movements. Unusual movement, or lack thereof may indicate problems. Workers can also use mobile devices to send for help.

On the downside, tracking workers’ movements will immediately bring up privacy concerns. This is an issue across the board for all users of this new mobile technology, and beyond the scope of this article. Some workers may welcome the additional protection, while others will object.

Regulatory compliance

Many of the aforementioned remote measurements will be related to proof of regulatory compliance. Tank levels and images taken by remote monitoring systems can serve as proof that monthly, semi-annual, and annual reporting requirements are met because the data are time stamped. The data can be retrieved from the system and incorporated into the required reports.

If a spill occurs, damage can be quantified by knowing exactly when the spill occurred, and the quantity lost. Without monitoring, there is no way to know how long the condition has been critical.

Asset protection

Nobody likes getting ripped off. Not only is it a nuisance, but thieves can endanger themselves and others by their actions, as they don’t tend to be concerned about leaving behind spills when stealing crude oil, or unsafe conditions with the theft of copper from electrical systems. 

Again, remote monitoring can signal a breach of property, unusual drops in crude oil levels, electrical outages, or other conditions signaling problems at the site. Measures can be taken by the system, such as activating lights, sounding alarms, or activating cameras. Text messages can be sent to operators if sensors detect a problem.

Big data

IoT systems are by their nature expandable. Operators can start with monitoring one or two tank levels, and then add more sensors to cover additional operational parameters, such as heat and vibration, and also expand to cover more wellsites. This makes the barrier to entry low, and gives operators immediate IoT remote monitoring benefits.

With additional sensors, more data are collected, which will have benefits beyond simply monitoring more single points of operation at the wellsite. For example, maintenance histories can now be tracked and correlated across individual and multiple wellsites.

As IoT systems are deployed, they may start with sensors for only the most important measurements, such as tank levels. IoT systems are designed to easily add sensors, covering more operational parameters. However, as more data are collected, information management becomes an issue. It’s no longer possible to interpret results with a single spreadsheet or graph. The sheer quantity of data makes the display of data problematic. Looking at graphs and numbers isn’t enough anymore.

To ensure proper data analysis and usefulness, two things must happen. First, the data must be analyzed in such a way that it yields useful and actionable information. Second, the results must be presented in a more visual way so that information can be easily grasped.

Data analysis needs to go beyond the obvious curves and numbers. Deep inside multiple data streams is hidden information about production efficiencies. It can be found only by cross-correlating data. For example, temperature, vibration, and pressure at the wellhead can indicate pump inefficiency or seal wear. The data taken over time can predict when maintenance is needed. Data can also be analyzed across a group of wellsites to predict reservoir performance.

What will the future bring?

IoT systems have the capability to bring in data from every important area of the oilfield that affects performance. That data has the ability to improve efficiency, protect workers, monitor assets, and allow for better environmental stewardship.

As prices for sensors and electronics continue to decrease, devices become smaller, communication improves, and cloud services mature, IoT systems will proliferate in the oilfield. Maintenance costs for older, wired SCADA systems will eventually drive larger producers to IoT systems that feature lower installation and maintenance costs, and yield better information.

IoT systems aren’t just about deploying many fancy wireless sensors. It’s about using those sensors to generate useful and actionable information in real time from the wellsite to provide significant operational benefits. Keep an eye on IoT, because it will be coming to the oilfield, and coming to smartphones in the near future.

– Frank Braswell has authored the Pumper’s Friend software for oilfield data collection and has recently worked with WellMark on remote tank level sensing hardware and software.

Online Extra: Frank Braswell has been involved in oilfield-related engineering projects in both exploration and production. In the early 1980s, he worked as an engineer at Conoco in the Exploration Research Division in Ponca City, Okla. He built the first digital control system for vibrator trucks used in exploration. In 2007, he became affiliated with the Stripper Well Consortium and has worked on several grant projects applying digital technology to oil production. He holds a BS in physics and mathematics from Jacksonville University, and a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.