Uncapping the benefits of wireless technology

Oil and gas producers are discovering creative ways of lowering costs, boosting productivity via industrial wireless networks.

By Sidney Hill March 27, 2015

If you wanted to compile a list of industries that were tailor-made for leveraging wireless and mobile technology, oil and gas production would be near the top of that list.

The configuration of the workplace—whether it’s a large oilfield or a sprawling refinery—makes it too expensive for even the largest producers to string the amount of wire needed to carry data across an oil and gas enterprise. Yet, the nature of the industry, with its ever-changing prices, and constant regulatory reporting requirements, requires the swift movement of accurate operational data from the field to the office.

A few years back, these dynamics, among others, sparked a movement to what it is known as the digital oilfield. Simply stated, a digital oilfield harnesses information technology in ways that allow an oil company to capture and analyze data about all of its operations, ideally in real-time, thus maximizing production while minimizing costs.

There is a small problem with this concept, however. Unless the entire enterprise is connected, true real-time data collection and analysis cannot take place, and the digital oilfield vision fades away. And that, according to some industry experts, is why oil and gas companies are increasingly adopting wireless technology. 

IDC Energy Insights classifies mobile and wireless solutions as “third platform” technologies—a group of solutions that also includes big data analytics programs, cloud-based applications and social business platforms. In a December 2014 report on the industry’s future, IDC predicted that 70% of oil and gas companies will have invested in one or more of these technologies by 2016 in hopes of creating IT environments that can support rapid responses to constantly changing business conditions.

Steve Senterfit, a vice president in the commercial energy practice for Booz Allen Hamilton, believes the rising interest in wireless technology in the oil and gas industry is driven partly by changes in the workforce.

“Over the past few years, we’re seeing a younger workforce come into the industry that’s accustomed to having immediate access to information on mobile devices,” Senterfit said in a recent interview. “These workers need and want immediate access to data. So, we’re starting to see more adoption of mobile solutions.”

Worker cravings aside, Senterfit concedes this move to mobile solutions would never happen if two other elements didn’t exist: the technology to make it feasible, and the business case to make it palatable.

“At the end of the day, all of these decisions still are driven by economics,” Senterfit said. “Management still wants to know if you can put together a business case that shows a quantifiable return on investment.”

In most cases, Senterfit contends, the business case for wireless technology in the oil and gas industry points to three things:

  • Lower overall operating costs
  • Less downtime for both workers and equipment
  • Better compliance with safety and environmental regulations. 

There are two sure signs that a form of technology is on the verge of widespread acceptance: new vendors with packaged solutions emerge, and larger, established vendors attempt to move into the space, typically by acquiring promising start-ups.

Both of these currently are happening with wireless technology for the oil and gas industry.

A variety of solutions

In 2012, for instance, ABB acquired Tropos Networks, a Silicon Valley-based developer of industrial wireless network technology that already had established inroads in the oil and gas industry. The Tropos platform now forms the core of solutions offered by the ABB Wireless business unit.

Similarly, Rockwell Automation expanded its ability to sell wireless solutions in the oil and gas industry with its 2013 purchase of vMonitor, a Houston-based company that was spun out of Shell Oil becoming a supplier of wireless solutions for monitoring, controlling and analyzing oilfield operations.

Vendors that have developed packaged wireless oil and gas offerings include San Antonio-based WellAware and enterprise software giant SAP.

WellAware offers a subscription-based platform that that consists of hardware and software for automating oilfield processes as well as collecting, distributing and analyzing production data, according Keith Dudley, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Roland Gonzalez, SAP’s senior director for mobile markets, recited a list of SAP offerings for the oil and gas industry. It started with the SAP Mobile Platform, which Gonzalez said allows users to develop and manage their own mobile applications.

He also said those applications can be integrated with other SAP wireless solutions such as SAP Work Manager, which automates most of the tasks performed by maintenance technicians. Last November, SAP also announced a partnership with Samsung to co-market versions of SAP’s Work Manager and Field Service Manager applications—both of which are used in oil and gas operations—on ruggedized versions of Samsung’s Galaxy tablets.

While all this movement clearly gives oil and gas producers more options for deploying wireless technology, it also should encourage them to ask lots of questions before purchasing any solutions.      

Among the first questions should be, “What type of wireless network is best for my environment?”

“We don’t recommend one type of network technology over another,” said Senterfit of Booz Allen Hamilton. “You really have to look at the particular environment in which you’re working. Traditional wireless networks generally work fine in an enterprise setting, but oil and gas operations typically are in remote areas or harsh environments such as the Western parts of the U.S. to Alaska or the frozen tundra of Canada and Russia’s Siberia. Mesh networking is one technology that is proving effective in these rugged environments.”

Traditional wireless technology is akin to what most people use for home Wi-Fi networks. It entails having a router connected by wires to a central computer with an Internet connection. The router beams a signal over a given area that other devices—computers, tablets, phones, etc., grab to connect to the network. However, these networks have limited range, and their signals can be blocked by obstructions such as a wall inside a building or any of the numerous hills or other topographic barriers in the typical oil- or gasfield. 

The limitations of traditional wireless networks caused most providers of industrial wireless network—including those playing in the oil and gas industry—to employ some form of mesh networking technology. Mesh networks boost reliability by turning devices into network nodes that can both send and receive signals. This solves the problem of having signals disrupted by obstructions because the network nodes also are programmed to find a clear path to an open node if the first route it sees is blocked.

This ability to find clear signal paths is why mesh networks have been called self-organizing. The term mesh also refers to the invisible communications net these networks form over their coverage areas to keep traffic flowing.

Honeywell Process Solutions has developed a mesh network solution that incorporates communications protocols based on the ISA 100 Wireless standard. “Honeywell made the decision to develop equipment that is compliant with ISA 100 Wireless because many other vendors are introducing devices and applications based on that standard,” said Diederik Mols, Honeywell’s business leader for industrial wireless solutions “That gives our customers the advantage of being able to run all of their wireless traffic on a single network, no matter how many different types of devices they attach to that network.” This characteristic also led to Honeywell using the term One Wireless as a brand name for its solutions.

Customer success stories

While there are some differences in how their networks are built, each of these vendors can point to oil and gas companies that have reaped tangible benefits from using their wireless solutions.

A typical case is the producer that reported a 25% reduction in employee downtime—and an associated $400,000 in annual savings—after installing a WellAware RPMA network to monitor operations at an exploration and production site in California.

“They had about 10 operators at this site who literally were managing the assets by driving around—traveling the same routes several times a day—because they couldn’t get real-time data,” Archer said.   

Before installing any equipment, WellAware performed a path analysis that included surveying the terrain and noting any existing communications towers in the area. It then created a network configuration with the goal of optimizing performance with the fewest possible number of wireless access points.

“The network consists of RPMA access points placed at strategic points,” Archer explained. There also are WellAware-supplied radios placed along the network that double as remote terminal units (RTU) that constantly poll sensors attached to production equipment for information such as tank levels, gas flows or well-head pressures. 

Operators view this data, in real-time, through a software application called WellAware Production Monitoring. Production data can be viewed on any computing device—from a desktop PC to a smartphone. Operators at the California site typically view the data—and even receive alarms about conditions warranting immediate attention—on tablets as they are traversing the field in their vehicles. This set up allows the operators to focus on those wells that actually need attention, rather having to visit each one numerous time each day.

Another producer estimated it saved 60% on the cost expanding its communications network in the Eagle Ford shale play by using wireless technology. This new network handles both the transmission of process data from a SCADA system and voice communication over Internet protocols.

Honeywell installed an even more sophisticated network at the SAMREF refinery complex in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. SAMREF is a joint venture between Saudi Arabian Oil Company  and Mobil Yanbu Refining Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon Mobil. The SAMREF refinery produces approximately 400,000 barrels of product daily including gasoline, heating oil, LPG, jet fuel and other energy products. 

The company installed a wireless network that handles traffic for process monitoring and video surveillance of the entire facility. The system relies on wireless access points equipped with three radios—one for communications with traditional transmitters, a second radio for communications with Wi-Fi devices and a third radio for high-speed communications of field data.

In addition to providing ready access to operational performance data, this network helps SAMREF comply with safety and security regulations by providing real-time video feeds from a series of cameras stationed around the refinery, as well as one mounted on top of a vehicle that an incident commander uses to patrol the grounds. Both control room personnel and the incident commander have around-the-clock access to the video feeds. Incident commanders use the video to reduce their response time in dispatching the appropriate personnel when potential safety or security violations occur. Control room personnel records the incidents and uses them for training tools to help prevent future problems.

While acknowledging that this is among the most creative uses of industrial wireless technology he has seen, Honeywell’s Mols pointed out that the customer—not 

Honeywell had the idea for using the technology in this fashion. He also said this type of creative thinking is common within the oil and gas industry. “In this industry, we are finding that once a wireless network is installed, it’s typical for the engineers at that facility come up with five more ideas for how it can be used within the first year,” Mols said.

With this type of momentum building from both vendors and users, it’s possible that wireless networks will be the standard when it comes to IT infrastructure in the oil and gas industry in the not too distant future.

– Sidney Hill is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has been writing about the convergence of business and technology for more than 20 years.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.