Internet of Things

Internet of Things

In the digital economy, what happens when a platform can’t connect?

By Brent Potts

Oil and gas exploration has gotten more expensive as companies are drilling in deeper waters further off shore. In fact, the average price for offshore oil-drilling rigs is approximately $650 million and can reach into the billions. On top of cost, ultra-deep offshore drilling is more complex with difficult topography and geologic challenges.


To improve the safety and efficiency of operations, many companies have turned to technology for help. Smart tools and machinery embedded with sensors continuously stream data, which is then analyzed and used to identify patterns, make real-time operational adjustments and proactively avoid potential maintenance issues. Examples of information being collected, stored and analyzed include real-time performance of equipment, temperature and pressure of components, or vibrations beyond normal for machinery. 


The growing number of connected assets, machines and devices is leading to staggering amounts of data. Correlating all the information can provide valuable insights into operations to keep workers safe. Yet, this requires powerful processing capabilities, which have already been developed for land-based operations and are typically housed in large data centers.


To access and analyze the data for offshore operations, content must be transmitted by standard satellite communications to onshore data centers, where it is processed and then re-transmitted back to the rig. Depending on the amount of data, this can create serious and frustrating latency issues, as well as high costs for data transfer.


Poor Connectivity

Latency issues caused by poor connectivity between onshore and offshore facilities have been a constant challenge for years. This is because so many drilling rigs are outside the range of traditional data networks or use undersea cables, and they tend to move locations every few months. Companies traditionally rely on VSAT satellite technology to provide connectivity to offshore locations. However, when it takes up to 10 minutes to transmit a small amount of data and get a response, it is nearly impossible to monitor data sets in real time and use information to take meaningful actions.


In addition to communication latency, offshore rigs also have to contend with sporadic power outages and network instability. When working in an increasingly data-driven environment, these problems often lead to higher costs, reduced safety, decreased reliability and lower productivity. Simply put, the applications and technologies used on land have not transferred well to offshore locations.


Two New Ideas

Solving an old problem with a new solution requires innovative thinking. Reimagining what is possible using technology is the foundation for two new ideas that have been developed to help oil and gas companies maintain connectivity in remote or disconnected environments.


The first new approach to solving latency issues on rigs uses a company’s existing architecture but adds third-party software to combine multiple screens into one. Traditional systems require data to be entered into multiple areas. Each time data is entered it is sent for verification with the onshore database via satellite technology.


A better way is to input all information on a single screen so that the data set is only entered once and only sent onshore once. Adding a graphical interface could make it even more intuitive and easy to use. Initial implementations have shown this solution allows for data entry in half the time and eliminates the need for extensive user training.


A second solution for addressing latency on oil and gas offshore locations involves the development of a new architecture. Imagine a ship or oilrig with a subset of the onshore database onboard. This smaller data set or digital twin is just enough to run operations and is much faster because the data isn’t going through a satellite before processing.


With the addition of a middleware platform onboard the rig, applications are fully functional and operate in disconnected mode, supported by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to enable rig communications on hand-held devices (where possible, using safe devices). If satellite connectivity goes down, it doesn’t affect operations because all systems are still connected to the onboard middleware decision-support platform. Syncing between the remote platform and onshore digital twin happens when specified at designated times when latency is minimal, using compression algorithms to reduce required bandwidth for the updates. An example of this new solution is called dynamic edge processing and is being used by companies like Vantage Drilling.


Beyond Oil and Gas

In both scenarios, oil and gas companies can eliminate time wasted by waiting to access and analyze data. Consequently, productivity and worker safety improves. Fortunately, these systems are not restricted to use by just oil and gas companies.


Any industry challenged with distributed or remote operations can see improvements in connectivity including mining, transportation, chemicals and aerospace. These connectivity solutions could also provide relief to areas recovering from natural disasters when network access is sporadic, unreliable or even unavailable.


Any delays in data availability at remote drilling locations can severely impact operations. Enabling real-time data-based insights regardless of location is critical to maintaining business continuity and worker safety. The two solutions above represent just the first step in solving problems with innovative thinking and unique technology applications. These systems could be the catalyst for change and consistent communications in situations far beyond the oil and gas industry. 


Brent Potts is SAP’s senior director of industrial marketing for oil and gas.


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