The digital pipelines oil and gas firms need to build

Video and M2M are offering energy firms the constant monitoring they need across disparate locations, but there are challenges. Cisco and analysts from NSR discuss the options

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When it comes to the business of extracting fuel from the earth, nothing is simple.

An engineering challenge like that of sifting through the Alberta Tar Sands for black gold is just the tip of the iceberg. Companies in the energy sector have to ensure the integrity of thousands of kilometers of pipeline, comply with strict safety and environmental requirements, and constantly convince skeptical Canadians to let them work in their “backyards.”

With the days of unrestricted oil drilling long gone, the only way to manage continent-spanning networks of pipelines, control centres, work camps and isolated sites is through constant remote communications: traditional microwave radio, satellites, digital wireless, and in many cases, fibre connectivity.  The medium of choice invariably comes down to the remoteness of sites, the nature of the job, and of course, the cost.

In demand: video and smarter sensors

Oil and gas sites, work camps and pipelines need constant monitoring. Video, essentially closed-circuit TV, is used in tandem with M2M sensors for many applications, ranging from taking video of actual wells to getting analog readouts of pressure and measuring flow rates. It’s also widely used for security and legal purposes.

So what needs to change? It depends on who you ask. Cisco Canada says that the sensors currently in use in oil and natural gas pipelines are cumbersome—they record data in isolation, and need to be physically removed and have their information extracted.

A better approach, says Bjoern Schmidt, director of strategic investments at Cisco Canada, is to run fibre alongside oil or natural gas pipelines that would transmit real-time data to operators. And as far as security is concerned, more video would beat the current practice of flying monitoring drones or having people simply come and check the integrity of the lines periodically.

The benefits of having fibre follow pipelines would also include bringing higher bandwidth to remote communities, giving them the bandwidth for e-health and e-learning projects, among other things, says Schmidt.

“Why wouldn’t companies that build pipelines build a digital or connected pipeline along the traditional pipelines, and they can use it in multiple ways?”

But while it’s the cheapest way to deliver higher bandwidth, sometimes fibre isn’t available in remote locations. In fact, satellite connectivity is a must-have technology all across the energy sector. Satellites  are usually the first on-line, and remain even in developed sites as backups for oil and gas projects.

Meanwhile, the price of satellite bandwidth has come down in price quite significantly in recent years, to the point that it’s becoming economically feasible for the oil and gas industry to use more of it, says Jose del Rosario, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR), a market research and consulting firm that specializes in the satellite industry. He says that in the future, we may see companies in the sector using more satellite-based CCTV, very expensive at present and generally used only on demand.

“It gets triggered if, let’s say, an alarm is sounded on L-band, and the CCTV turns on to indicate, let’s say, there’s a leak, so you can view it on your screen once the alarm is tripped,” says Rosario.

“Going forward, with a much less expensive high-throughput satellite…you can run that CCTV much longer.”

If, however, fibre is available at a site, the cost can be low enough to have your video running 24/7. This is especially true when you want high quality video.

“There’s a need for both more cameras at the site for physical security and higher-resolution cameras for diagnostic capabilities,” says Brad Grady, another senior analyst at NSR. “They want to be able to have that HD image to detect…if there’s some sort of leaky puddle on the ground or there’s something that doesn’t look right.”

Since most on-site technicians aren’t trained to diagnose these problems, they can use HD cameras to point at things that don’t conform to standards, and share them via a conference call with engineers at a network operation centre who can figure out the problem, he says.

Learn more by downloading ‘Creating a Collaborative Network in the Oil and Gas Industry,’ an executive brief from Allstream.

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