Wireless to the rescue offshore

Gregory Hale

September 1, 2015

Communication is key, even offshore. Gregory Hale examines how wireless can improve operational efficiencies.

A kenetic mesh network in action on and offshore oil and gas rig. Image from Rajant Corp.

A gas producer offshore needed to modernize an aging 30-year-old wellhead platform off Southeast Asia to optimize output of its wells.

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico needed to coordinate traffic coming into and going out of the vicinity of the platform. These are two separate scenarios, but the producers knew the most economic and efficient answer was wireless.

In an environment where a barrel of oil dropped from its heady days of over US$100 to hovering in the $40-50 range, producers have to find all the efficiencies it can get. Wireless is one way to pull in as much data as possible to glean more visibility into what is going on and help squeeze out inefficiencies.

“It is all about operational efficiencies right now,” says Kirk Byles, vice president of Rajant Corp. “You put the rigs together and they cost billions of dollars and they have to get the oil and how do you make things more efficient.

“Part of the efficiency is the communications piece,” he says. “It can just be as simple as reading a monitoring station or meter that says we need to put more pressure on the down pipes to get more oil out they might not have seen before. “That itself would save (producers) a few thousand barrels a day,” he says. “It is very quick to see the operational efficiency. It pays for itself in under a year and sometimes within a month.”

As offshore operations demand smarter and cost-effective application solutions, the traditional practices relating to physical equipment are changing. Along those lines, wireless is handling condition surveillance, machine-to-machine communication, smart sensors and data transfer techniques.

According to a paper written by Malka N. Halgamuge and Priyan Mendis from the University of Melbourne, Australia and Jayantha P. Liyanage, from the Center for Industrial Asset Management at the University of Stavanger, Norway, such an intelligent environment will end up based on three principal components:

Smart sensors that continuously or periodically monitor the condition of a given item automatically, and transfer signals to receiving units on the health of the item.

Data processing and analysis solutions that compile complex data within designated units, process and analyze them for feature/pattern recognition.

Advanced data transfer and communication channels that connect a given set of data sources to a given set of user groups/decision makers located remotely. Sensor networks embedded within the physical equipment configuration of a facility allowing real-time 24/7 signal transfer between an identified set of units will have major contributions on the technical and safety integrity assurance processes.

Slip in efficiency

Average production efficiency dropped in the past decade, while the performance gap between industry leaders and other companies widened, from 22% in 2000 to 40% in 2012, according to a McKinsey & Co. report.

Benchmarking data also illustrates the broad opportunity for improvement. Best-in-class players do not incur higher costs to improve production efficiency, and high performance does not link to a specific asset type or the maturity of assets. Instead, companies with high production efficiency are often similar in their quality of operations, approach to eliminating equipment defects, equipment choices, and planning and execution of shutdowns, the report said.

Regardless of location, most oil and gas producers face issues that complicate efforts to achieve sustained production-efficiency improvements.

Let’s face it, in large and complex offshore facilities, it is impossible to install a fully featured physically wired network to oversee what is going on 24/7. A wireless sensor network can help bring about real-time monitoring and automatic control of vital applications.

The oil industry wants private networks where producers can get data off and on the oil rigs.

Wireless in action

In the case of the Southeast Asia platforms, the platform is a hub with 16 active wellheads as well as production headers from four nearby platforms, with power generation equipment to support the five platforms. If there is an issue on any of the platforms, production losses could last for days. As they say, time is money.

As a result, the producer implemented a mixture of wired and wireless devices during the retrofit to optimize monitoring and control of the platform while keeping power limited.

Wireless instruments now monitor wellhead status on all 16 wells of the hub, as well as gas receiving for all five platforms, production headers, and the fuel skid. The plan minimized power and space requirements and gave the user reliability needed to optimize production.

Routing traffic

In the case of the rig in the Gulf of Mexico, it had a series of boats or helicopters coming in for docking or landing. The rig needed to monitor and have communications with them and the company didn’t want to reconfigure the network whenever one vehicle left or joined the area.

One way to create a better communications forum, they felt, was to create a wireless network around the rig.

“We created a ‘bubble’ around one of the largest oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,” Byles says. “They had flotillas of maintenance boats and all kinds of boats coming in and out, helicopters landing. They couldn’t communicate with them very well as they were getting closer to the rig or leaving the rig.”

The rig operator deployed about five portable wireless nodes on the oil rig, one on the top and one on each corner of the rig. These nodes were not fixed points, users could move them without any changes in network configurations.

“We created the ‘bubble’ around the rig and they put the nodes on all the vehicles that had to communicate with the rig. When they came within a mile or two they could communicate with the rig just like they had run a wire to the boat, and on the boat they could have WiFi or wired access to the rig,” Byles says. “And they could communicate to other vehicles with a node as well. All of a sudden you have a web of connections around the rig at a very high speed and not have to worry about a connection going down as long as they were within the range.”

They can ensure no lost communication because the wireless nodes use multiple frequencies so they can direct the data packet ­— whether it was voice, video or data in any direction.

The node is a multi-radio box with a motherboard and software. “In that box, you have different radios running on different frequencies. There could be a 900 MHz radio, 2.4 GHz radio, or a 5.8 GHz radio or even a 4.9 GHz radio. What that provides is the ability to mitigate interference and to take on different propagations,” Byles says. “You have all these different frequencies to work with, as you move all these boats around there may be interference on the 900 so you might be able to pass data using the 2.4 or the 5.8.”

“(The rig) was able to provide a mobile network and there was no real configuration, no need to maintain any routing cable, and no controller to worry about. Each node was a piece of the infrastructure. The more you put into the mesh, it became stronger and stronger. The data overhead continued to remain low, sub one millisecond between mesh nodes and there was no limit to how many mesh nodes you could use,” Byles says.

The oil industry is going through some tough times, and it needs real-time answers to complex problems.

In the end, it always ends up being about communication. There are solutions to those problems; whether it is a remote gas field in Southeast Asia or routing traffic into and round a rig in the Gulf of Mexico, wireless automation can provide answers.

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (ISSSource.com) and is the contributing Automation editor at Offshore Engineer.