#OBL12: communications transforming oil & gas sectors

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Despite a double dip recession impacting great swathes of the developed world, and a slowing down of growth in the BRICS, global demand for energy continues to rise . The US Dept of Energy believes that the world's energy thirst will rise by a half over the next twenty years. Fossil fuels - oil, gas and goal - will continue to make up 80% of our energy needs until renewables have the scale and efficiency to become our mainstay.

But as reserves of fossil fuels are depleted, it becomes harder to find and extract the oil and coal needed to fuel economic growth. Exploration becomes an even more fierce and competitive activity.

At Orange Business Live in Rome, the oil & gas industry session looked at how the industry is utilising communications technology to help it improve data collection, collaboration and workflow, despite working in some of the harshest environments on earth (or at sea).

Here are four areas where technologies like VSAT satellite broadband, M2M sensors, telepresence, unified communications and application acceleration are dramatically improving working practises in the industry.

exploration

Oil exploration requires high-bandwidth connectivity in remote locations, whether that be delivered by satellite, mobile, wireless, microwave, fibre or copper. Operators are knitting these access methods together into unified global networks that allow remote sites to access the same IT resources as offices in major cities. This is in part to do with greater availability of connectivity, falling costs per bit, and increasing use of application acceleration to make the most use of what bandwidth there is.

Oil companies can now collect and relay seismic and geologic data to onshore specialists. In the past, specialists needed to be in the field: now this expensive asset can be on dry land and oversee multiple projects.

Consider 3D seismic data profiling. One boat can pull ten lines of 4km each, meshed together in a grid. There is one receiver located every 12.5m, so one grid would contain 3,200 receivers. Each one of these sensors samples every 200 milliseconds, and the sampling period goes on for several months. To get this seismic data back to where it can be analysed, you would need up to 256kpbs satellite connectivity, sending a multi-gigabit stream of files. Five years ago this was prohibitively expensive: now exploration companies can build a business case for it.

Similarly, VSAT can be used to remotely control directional drills where a "campaign" can take place for several months to several years. Data from the drills such as pressure, mud density, flow, temperature, seismic velocity can be fed back to a central team who pilot multiple exploratory drills in the field, simultaneously. This minimises the need for a geologist on site.

safety and asset tracking

Satellite broadband can play a role in improving safety and security on mines and rigs. IP-based video cameras can monitor remote or difficult to reach areas of a facility; they can be combined with image recognition and motion tracking software so that only exceptions trigger an alarm (i.e. they don't need to be watched 24-7 by a human).

M2M sensors can track toxic gases in confined space, such as inside a frac tank, or be attached to a pipeline to measure gas pressures or vibrations. All the data can be relayed via VSAT back to a monitoring system. Telemetry was pioneered in the oil and gas industry: now with low-cost VSAT terminals and local wireless technologies like Wi-Fi, Zigbee and Bluetooth, more assets can be tracked, and more criteria can be monitored. This is vital in a time where onshore pipelines can be under attack by vandals and criminals, and the safety of rigs and gas platforms is under scrutiny following high-profile disasters.

crew welfare

Fast satellite broadband connections are also supporting crew welfare. Increasingly oil rigs and gas platforms are complex places to work and there is a shortage of qualified offshore personnel. Anything that can improve crew safety while reducing attrition (particularly for a social generation that grew up with online communications who may feel dislocated if cut off from the outside world without internet access), can give an ROI.

With low-cost Ku-band satellite connectivity, you can bring multi-megabit internet access to very remote locations. From fixed or mobile terminals, crew would have access to social media and email (using application compression), digital TV (caching at off-peak times), e-learning, telemedicine and telepresence, low-cost voice (VoIP or GSM). And the services don't need to be limited to the crew mess. Wi-Fi and small GSM cells can cover an entire rig so communications become as natural at sea as on land.

working practices

Another benefit of satellite broadband on rigs and in mines is that you change working practices. Rather than having specialists on site at all location, they can work from centralised offices and collaborate with onsite teams using telepresene, audio conference, unified messaging and document sharing. The remote site is no longer cut off: using bandwidth prioritization and VSAT, the rig can be another site on the global IP VPN. The link can support PBX extension, Voip, telepresence, access to cloud apps, unified communications, large file transfer. Furthermore, a hotspot service can be offered to partners and contractors: they can have a secure internet access and help to subsidise the cost of the VSAT connection.

Stewart

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.