Telecommunications of the future

October 3, 2014

The rapid expansion of oil and gas telecommunications systems in order to facilitate the development digital oilfields in increasingly remote locations, enhance safety, and maximize data use, was the theme of a conference on oil and gas telecommunications organized by SMi Group in London.

Meg Chesshyre reports.

Petroleum Geo-Services’ seismic survey vessel Atlantic Explorer. Photo from PGS.

High-speed, fiber optic submarine communications systems are critical infrastructure to facilitate the digital oilfield of the future, says Mike Constable, CEO of Huawei Marine Networks, a turnkey submarine cable system supplier, and a joint venture with Global Marine Systems, at the Oil & Gas Telecommunications conference in London.

“The oil majors and field developers recognize that it is not just oil or gas flowing from their reservoirs. It is data,” he says. An increasing amount of data is created, tracked and analyzed in order to optimize field operations in one way or another. Intelligent devices are capturing vast amounts of data, but a significant portion of this data is getting stranded in the field and not getting distributed effectively back to the shore. This is the critical infrastructure gap that subsea fiber optic cables that connect to offshore platforms eliminates.

“Broadband data communications is rapidly emerging as the single most reliable technology to support the digital fields of today and certainly of the future,” Constable says. The drivers are similar to the global drivers of internet connectivity. Efficiencies, reduction of cost, profitability – all of these elements are critical to the exploration of today. Increasingly field developers are incorporating fiber-based infra-structure into their planning for new field developments, in addition to retrofitting brown fields.

He stresses the reliability of the systems. “We design these networks with 99.99996% reliability.” Subsea fiber optic networks are not affected by atmospheric or climatic conditions. Bringing fiber to the platforms eliminates the digital divide between onshore and offshore.

OPEX reductions

There are OPEX reductions from remote monitoring. One field developer indicated that they had reduced their head count offshore by about 25% once they had fiber to platforms, a significant OPEX saving, and a health and safety benefit there as well.

Real time access to data accelerates decision making, and more significantly it is facilitating the new big data or data heavy technology that is coming today. One of the big data technologies that is on the horizon and being actively invested in now by a number of organizations, is permanent reservoir monitoring or 4D seismic systems. Sensors on the seabed transfer data back to the platform, and from the platform to shore enabling reservoir engineers to model their reservoirs more efficiently.

Companies like Statoil, Shell and Petrobras are putting in these systems now. Statoil, for instance, expects that the PRM systems on the Norwegian sector Snorre and Grane will result in 30MMbbl additional production. Not every field is suitable, but it is certainly technology that is ramping up.

“Data is here, and is here to stay,” Constable said. “It is just getting bigger. It is more complex and the management of that is set to be a significant requirement for operators. It is also an integral part of the digital oilfield. Fiber-based submarine cable infrastructure is certainly the most effective and reliable solution for bringing the benefits of high speed broadband connectivity to offshore platforms, and the key to achieving these benefits is through the skilled resources, the project planning, and the collaboration between the experts that build these systems and the customers.”

Frontier communications challenges was the theme taken up by Berry Mulder, team leader “Frontier Automation” for Shell Projects and Technology. He said that Shell and the oil and gas industry are going to more and more remote and inhospitable areas, such as the Prelude floating LNG facility off the coast of Australia, Arctic, and sour operations. “We have generalist people on board, who have to do expertise jobs, which means they have to get support from remote experts, so remoteness becomes a connectivity collaboration issue.”

An additional challenge in Arctic locations is that human beings are just not designed for work outside at -40°C. A lot of activities are still manual. More automation, taking the humans away from the hazardous activities, would help. Working at high temperatures and at high levels of protection is also a considerable challenge. For high sour operations people have to go into the facility already wearing breathing apparatus, eliminating the risk there would not be time to put on a gas mask in the event of a sudden leak.

Tracking people has special challenges to convince field workers to wear their tag and because it means that a lot of expectation of reliability is put upon the system. In an emergency, it helps the rescue crew if they know where you are so they can pick you up.

Mulder says there is a need to use more information technology in process facilities. “How can we equip field workers with what is available today outside? We hire the brightest people from universities and then give them metal tools to work on electrical systems.”

Statoil has installed a permanent reservoir monitoring solution on the Snorre field. Such systems produce data, which needs transporting. Photo from Statoil/by Harald Pettersen. 

Robotics developments

On the robotics side, ROVs have been successfully deployed for seabed operations for many years, so why not put wheels on the ROV and make it drive around? Enter the Sensabot inspection robot, which is to be deployed next year in the Kashagan field in the northern Caspian Sea. Working in this field is challenging due to the area’s extreme climate and the high concentration of hydrogen sulfide gas present in the Kashagan reservoir. It can be used as a first responder if the H2S alarm goes off, rather than sending in a human being, which means “we can recover faster, restart operations faster, get to the root cause faster,” Mulder says.

Sensabot features a mobile robotic base with a sensor boom tipped with inspection sensors. It can operate in extreme temperatures and explosive and toxic atmospheres. A human operator remotely drives Sensabot and uses its sensors to inspect pipes, fittings, and valves. The robot is small enough to go almost anywhere a human worker can go and will be equipped to detect obstacles in its path. Sensabot is designed to meet IECEx Zone 1 standards for explosive environments and ANSI safety standards for guided industrial vehicles.

Another robot initiative is PETROBOT, a three-year European Union (EU) project set-up in September 2013, together with a consortium of 10 European companies led by Shell. PETROBOT will involve partners from the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Germany. The EU is contributing €3.7 million to the €6.2 million project. The plan is to develop two types of inspection robots, to inspect pressure vessels while taken out of service, and to inspect storage tanks while in-service; with two main focus areas – to develop remotely deployed inspection tools for industrial environment, and the develop a market for these tools.

But, Mulder points out, robots need connectivity everywhere, as would a human. “We don’t want a situation where it drives into a black spot, and someone has to go in and push it out again.” Low latency was also important. “We need local coverage including in vessel connectivity for robots,” he says.

“At some stage I thought my job was developing new technology for Shell. Right now it is more like developing Shell to use new technology.” More stuff becomes available all the time, but it is about convincing people to use it smartly, he says.

“I’m trying to organize networks of young people, basically because the older people see this stuff, don’t get the click and it doesn’t happen. They have to be the decision makers, so I’d like to generate a network of younger people, who say, of course we want this, a supply chain of younger people that says: you have this problem, you have the network. I know how to design it.”

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