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IOT goes offshore

Written by  Friday, 15 December 2017 04:27

The Internet of Things, a world in which equipment and instrumentation can talk to each other and modify operating parameters – across platforms, fleets and whole businesses – accordingly, is close at hand. Having the communications infrastructure in place is what will help make it happen. Elaine Maslin reports (originally published in OE's December 2017 issue).

In an industry with a large fleet of production facilities designed and built before the dawn of the internet, with limited communications infrastructure, embracing the likes of Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) can be a challenge.

The industry already has a signifi cant amount of instrumentation and more data than some say they can cope with. The challenge has been around gaps in connectivity, connecting devices, and dealing with the data generated. 

Fiber optics have taken the industry a huge step forward, while 4G LTE cellular networks are expanding wireless communications capabilities offshore. The next step to enabling an offshore IoT is plugging the gaps, with the likes of newer networks, such as LoRa wide area networks (WAN), offering possible solutions.

This infrastructure would help realize the world in which equipment can communicate. It would also allow technicians out on the plant to talk to onshore experts via the likes of live augmented reality video links. This world is coming. In a trial offshore the Netherlands, an onshore surveyor was able to verify an inspection offshore via a 4G data link.

BP is fitting out its latest North Sea developments, Clair Ridge and Quad 204 (the Schiehallion/Loyal redevelopment) with the latest technologies, including wireless networks across both facilities, as well as trying to future proof them. (Read more here.)

IoT and its possibilities for the offshore industry were discussed at a joint Censis and Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) event, “IoT goes Offshore,” in Aberdeen early October.

“It’s the start of a disruption that is set o be as big as the internet in the 1990s,” says Mark Begbie, business development director, Censis, an industryled Innovation Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems, who says perhaps in the past it would have been called telematics, or machine-to-machine communication.

OT phone home 

The backbone of this revolution is communication infrastructure. For the past 17 years, Tampnet has been connecting fixed facilities with fi ber optic cables, laid out throughout across the North Sea. In the UK North Sea, there’s 26,500km of this fiber alone, giving 240 facilities in the UK, Norwegian and Danish North Sea a fast data link to onshore. 

In 2013, with the introduction of 4G LTE in the Tampnet network, low latency, high capacity communications were extended to were then introduced to mobile assets. LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a standard for high-speed wireless communications for mobile devices using the likes of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications, a second-generation digital cellular network). Tampnet is building its coverage through placing base stations on facilities around the North Sea, using the existing network as a backhaul to onshore.

“Using existing infrastructure, we [have] deployed 4G LTE base stations covering a similar area to 75% of the UK,” says John Main, sales manager for Tampnet. “Installing our base station on a 100m tower can give 40-50-60km range,” enabling coverage for mobile assets in those areas. He says 28 base stations have been installed, most recently on Talisman Repsol Sinopec UK’s Clyde platform in the UK North Sea. Another will be installed before year-end, with a further 9-10 due to be installed next year.

This coverage has provided an alternative to VSAT (very small aperture terminal – a satellite communications system), with reduced latency from 600 milliseconds (ms) down to 40ms, and increased bandwidth connectivity speed: testing the system on a new facility, staff were able Skype home to family using a 4G hotspot created on a vessel’s bridge.

In November, the firm won a contract to operate the offshore communications networks in the Dutch North Sea, which will include tying the area in to the existing subsea fiber network and merging the LTE network into the wider basin.

Looking in

However, says Main, 4G LTE doesn’t just have to be used for communication between facilities or to shore. Pointing a single 4G LTE antenna into a facility could cover 85% to 100% of the platform for mobile devices, Main says. This could enable an operator to video conference with an onshore subject matter expert on the spot. Tampnet has 24 projects in the pipeline involving internal-focused antenna, Main says.

For IoT, where thousands of sensors might be connected to a network, most of which don’t need to send huge amounts of data, especially if they’re smart or use edge analytics (i.e. process at site and only send what they need to), network capability doesn’t have to be so high. 

Øyvind Skjervik, Tampnet’s chief architect, says the firm is looking into NB-IoT (narrowband internet of things) and CAT-M1, a narrow band, low frequency, IoT-friendly version of LTE. While LTE has a high bandwidth, working at 20MHz with 240 megabits per second (mbps), CAT-M1 works at 1.4MHz with 1mbps and NB-IoT at 180kHz with 60kbps bandwidth. It can reach areas conventional LTE cannot and, because it requires less power than LTE, a NB-IoT device can operate up to 10 years on a battery, making the technology ideal for sensors.

Cat-M1 will be used where extended coverage is needed to connect devices relying on more bandwidth consuming, always on, applications like voice and video CAT-M1 connected devices to do their thing for longer. Such technology is being used to monitor shipping containers, with the signal able to go through 4-10 layers of containers in a shipping hold, Begbie says. 

“There's a lot of gathering of information today. IoT brings in a new era,” says Skjervik – sending what’s needed. Sensors can be low cost with a long battery life and with “extreme” network coverage. Tampnet hopes to run a pilot next year. 

LoRa

Low power wide area networks (LPWAN) such as LoRaWAN are offering something similar. They have a long range, i.e. 3km in an urban environment or 10km in rural environment, equating to 12.5sq km. LoRa is a type of radio modulation technology using license-free radio frequency bands, with a protocol. For more local applications, there’s also near field communications (used for contactless payments), radio frequency identifi cation (used for tracking parcels in warehouses etc.), and bluetooth, among others. “LP-WAN is the new kid on the block,” says Graham Kerr, technical director at Censis. “It has a high-range, low-rate data rate, which doesn't matter so much for IoT.” 

Cults Telecom Services has been developing an LPWAN network as part of a trial within Aberdeen. But, the fi rm also worked with the Oil & Gas Technology Centre and Rowan Drilling to see how an LP-WAN network would perform on a drilling rig. The firm set up a network on the Rowan Gorilla VI jackup, with a base station positioned on top of the radio room. The rig was in the Port of Dundee at the time and the trial a success, including covering below deck and over the water by the rig, says Tim Everitt, of Cults Telecom. 

Big data, digitalization, and IoT have become this decade’s buzz words. Slowly but surely, they’re also actually starting to shape and become more than just words in the offshore oil and gas industry.

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