Is Wireless Keeping Pace With Oil, Gas Production?

September 2014, Vol. 241, No. 9

Dan Steele, Director of OEM, Utility and Energy Markets, FreeWave Technologies, Boulder, CO

The oil and gas industry is changing as production demands of 21st century technology increases at an extraordinary pace. The industry faces challenges going forward, including remote monitoring of wellheads and storage tanks, 24-hour production demands and the high cost to manage remote sites in terms of time and resources.

Traditionally, companies sought multiple solutions to address these challenges – ad-hoc communication networks or combinations of networks to suit production and monitoring applications.

But as wireless communications grew in popularity and the machine-to-machine (M2M) and industrial Internet of things (IoT) industry evolved, wireless communications technology began to offer comprehensive solutions that deliver critical access to data in the field, both local and remote.

Oil and gas formations and remote locations go hand-in-hand. Wellheads and pipelines are often found in isolated and inaccessible areas such as the desert, high plains, mountainous areas with many trees, under arctic tundra or offshore. It can be difficult (or impossible) to find road access for many of these places, which creates a big challenge for maintenance teams and production operations centers.

While technology enables production in these locations without the need for people in the field, there are going to be instances in which wellheads or pipelines require repairs due to buckling, leakage or other broken parts. This adds another interesting challenge to oil and gas environment because unless an organization is aware of problems in the field, issues cannot be mitigated.

When technologies are not operating at the highest capacity due to broken parts, production suffers. This is why wireless M2M connectivity has become such a critical component for the industry, and without on-site personnel, it can be expensive and time-consuming to visit a site. To ensure these issues are overcome while continuing to meet high production demands, comprehensive yet flexible communications are required. What’s needed is high bandwidth, two-way connectivity that:

• Enables remote monitoring, and control of wellheads and pipelines, as well as fast SCADA updates

• Makes secure connections to operation centers – virtual local area networks (VLANs) and radius servers

• Allows maintenance teams to connect with voice and data communications in real time – WiFi in the field for service tech’s and pumpers.

Fortunately for the industry, advanced technology has kept pace. With point to multi-point communications, dispatchers can monitor video feeds to see what’s happening at the wellhead or pipeline site, and teams can be sent to the correct location with the right tools and parts the first time around.

Next Generation Of Wireless Broadband
The only way to run oil and gas operations is to ensure that each element and moving piece is functioning as smoothly as possible. Mobile broadband, remote broadband, security over wireless, and the mix of M2M and human machine interface (HMI) have all played significant roles in the evolution of broadband networking solutions into their current state.

The ability to securely extend high-speed wireless networks into remote locations while maintaining mobility and end-user device choices is an attractive option for oil and gas operators. Increasing bandwidth in broadband communication technologies is driven by the demand for video and other bandwidth-intensive applications to devices in remote locations.

For example, video on the wellpad and local Wi-Fi access for field service personnel on-site are growing oil and gas needs. With wireless broadband, these companies can leverage resources, mitigate and respond to issues, analyze data, increase security, ensure safety and compliance, and improve product quality – all while increasing production.

There are wireless M2M communications options that deliver intelligent wellhead monitoring and control solutions to support optimal production, accurate telemetry and fault-tolerant communications. With a versatile wireless M2M communications architecture that delivers secure, end-to-end, high-speed wired and wireless communications for SCADA networks, new broadband networks seamlessly connect to remote sites.

Wireless broadband solutions with the ability to support multiple frequency bands and several industrial Internet protocols can meet a vast range of networking and communication demands.

Oil and gas operators can leverage mesh technology to establish a path from the field site to the control center with industry standard routing protocols to maximize network efficiency. When equipment breaks, the network can reorganize itself to flow traffic around the problem. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for video and gas leak detection will be common place and is offered in countries outside the United States.

Some wireless broadband providers offer the ability to leverage multiple radio modules per unit with high over-the-air data rates, high bandwidth and secure communications.

There are vendors who also offer a wide variety of proven Ethernet and Internet protocols and management services to make it easy to install, operate and manage in both standalone and enterprise networks. There are wireless broadband solutions that allow for connectivity of a variety of different antennas, allowing the organization to best use its network.

Some vendors offer platforms built to support any network infrastructure, provide remove video access and power multiple serial and Ethernet devices simultaneously with an easy integration into existing LAN and wide area networks (WAN).

There are also broadband communications technologies that offer rugged design and versatile IP and network configuration options that simplify delivery of advanced wireless networking and communications.

For example, an oil and gas operator can deploy telemetry that enables remote monitoring of pump jack status, wellhead pressure, storage tank capacity and fuel levels as well as video surveillance for site security and fault response. What’s even more impressive is that there are solutions available that offer each of these options on a single platform.

These questions should prove helpful to energy companies that are considering next-generation wireless M2M communications architecture:

• Can you extend the enterprise LAN with high-speed and secure broadband communications?

• Are you able to provide Wi-Fi connectivity and optional 3G backhaul to field personnel for troubleshooting and performance of critical tasks at remote locations?

• Can you integrate video surveillance, voice and last mile infrastructure with point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, fixed and mobile mesh architectures?

• Is your solution purpose-built (not off the shelf) to meet even your most rugged and demanding requirements across a wide range of SCADA, backhaul and monitoring applications and environments?

• Does your solution include a mix of Ethernet and serial data ports to interface with a broad range of wired host devices?

• Can you deliver high data rates “over the air” to deliver secure communications based on Ethernet and Internet standard protocols?

Staying Secure
Not only have the advancements in the oil and gas industry spurred innovation for high-performance wireless networking and communications, it also spurred the convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT).

The integration of IT and OT promotes a single view of an enterprise’s information, and process management tools ensure every person, machine, sensor, switch, device in an organization has accurate information in the best form and at the right time. As OT products such as program logic controllers (PLCs) and remote terminal units (RTUs) become more aligned with commercial software infrastructure, getting OT information integrated efficiently with IT systems at a process level is difficult enough for many companies.

Getting IT and OT systems to work together to maximize business efficiency, while avoiding negative consequences, risks and pitfalls in the process, makes the task even more challenging. Security and network privacy is often the most critical consideration for deploying wireless communications.

In addition to providing comprehensive communication solutions, some wireless broadband network platforms deliver end-to-end security to help keep minds at ease. These networks are equipped for defense against unauthorized access with Wi-Fi protected Access (WPA) and WPA2 protocols based on the 802.11i standard requiring the use of private, unshared keys with counter mode cipher block, chaining message authentication code protocol (CCMP) and advanced encryption standard (AES).

The federal government considers AES-128 to be sufficient for securing information rated as “secret,” and AES-256 for “top secret.” With broadband networking solutions for M2M communications that meet these requirements, oil and gas companies can leverage and incorporate several essential network elements, including wired network access, cellular network access, local area communications, high-speed backbone communications, Wi-Fi hotspot access and mobile mesh networking through a single platform.

This not only provides the ability to enable data intensive applications, but oil and gas companies can extend their enterprise IT network into remote locations, empower field assets and personnel through wireless access to back office systems, streamline the integration of new devices and sensors into existing infrastructures, and simplify overall networking integration – all while maintaining network privacy and security.

With wireless broadband networking technology, a well pad in an extremely remote location can easily be connected to the corporate network as securely as if the two locations were connected via CAT5 Ethernet cable.

Unleash The Power
It is entirely possible for operators to enable data-intensive applications such as video and two-way communications, reduce operating expenses, and use advanced security. This technology will prevent issues in the field from being overlooked and maximize production.

With a well-executed technology selection process and deployment, not only will operators know what is happening in the field at all times, they will also reduce downtime and repair expenses.

Prior to making any decisions, it is essential to research all of the options on the market, choose reputable vendors who support path studies and network design and select a technology that can support all communications needs – with future IT considerations in mind. With the right broadband network, operators will be able to handle all communication demands no matter how varied or challenging the applications may be.