By: Gary Bray, director of Energy at Inmarsat Enterprise and Nabil Ben Soussia, managing director, IEC Telecom Middle East
It has been a turbulent few years in the oil and gas sector. From crude oil hitting the dizzying heights of $110/barrel in 2014 before plunging to $30/barrel in March 2016, producers have gone through an extended period of belt-tightening to weather the storms, as margins and profitability become slimmer.
Further sharpening the need for energy companies to operate more efficiently is the greater pressure from governments, consumers and other parties to reduce non-renewable energy consumption and humanity’s impact on the environment. This, in turn, places revenues, profits and margins under severe strain and this is where technologies can play an important role.
Key to the energy sector’s efforts to protect margins and profitability will be the introduction of Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that enable energy businesses to gather data from anywhere, through connected sensors, and transfer that data across to cloud platforms for analysis by staff in control centres, often hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. Satellite communications will play a vital role in bringing the many efficiency benefits of IoT to remote areas.
Indeed, research conducted by leading satellite connectivity provider Inmarsat Enterprise into the adoption of Industrial IoT in the energy sector found that for 60 per cent of businesses, improving the efficiency with which they use resources is a key driver of IoT deployment and that 48 per cent are aiming to use IoT to reduce the cost of business operations.
While IoT is set to form the foundations for a more efficient digital future for the energy sector, it will also enable the implementation of other, complementary technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as augmented reality and real-time remote asset management, to extend the life of assets and improve operational efficiency.
Exploring with technology
The exploration of oil and gas fields is both immensely complex and expensive. Energy businesses looking for deposits of oil and natural gas have to survey significant areas undersea or on land, before deciding to drill into these deposits to extract natural resources most efficiently.
Connected IoT sensors embedded in the ground or on sea beds can provide drilling companies with detailed seismic data to help them build 3D maps of deposits with much greater speed and lesser cost and drill with vastly improved accuracy. In an industry where costs and revenues are under growing pressure and exploration is becoming increasingly difficult, connected sensors gathering key data points could be critical to improving margins and profitability.
Similarly, IoT technology, supported by satellite connectivity, can help support much greater levels of automation at extraction facilities, with manual tasks that were previously carried out by staff on site now able to be controlled and monitored remotely.
Extracting value with remote maintenance and guidance
A significant cost to businesses extracting oil and gas is the cost of maintenance. Sending staff for basic manual maintenance tasks is both costly and inefficient.
However, efforts to standardise wireless networks over the last decade have enabled operators to implement remote monitoring and maintenance strategies that can help avoid costly shutdowns and improve the efficiency of maintenance operations, by using technology that takes data readings at set intervals and transfers this data back to head offices. Specialised companies like IEC Telecom Group have a range of solutions, which leverage satellite communications, allowing businesses to carry out remote monitoring and oil rig management. Their solutions significantly improve data visibility, allowing staff to constantly monitor machinery and other vital data and take action when necessary. With remote monitoring, businesses can monitor performance of the well from anywhere with an Internet connection and receive alarms when there are problems. This is particularly important on oil and gas rigs in remote areas, where a fault with mission-critical machinery could halt production and cost a business millions of dollars.
Another benefit of remote monitoring is that it enables predictive maintenance. Maintenance schedules can be now optimised to improve the efficiency of operations. Advanced IoT remote monitoring solutions can also be deployed along pipelines to measure and analyse structural integrity, detecting weakness in construction materials and alerting staff if any area looks likely to fail. These efficiencies will be critical in enabling energy businesses to improve the margins they can make at a consistently lower oil price.
While remote monitoring and asset management can handle a wide variety of issues on rigs, human presence is often the calming hand and the expert instruction when disaster strikes. Solutions with Augmented Reality (AR) enable offsite experts to guide the hands and see through the eyes of onsite technicians. This unique, hands-overlay technology lets the expert show, not tell, what to do—in real time, with a shared view and pinpoint accuracy. With no need for complex verbal instructions, remote guidance solutions with AR gives service teams the power of presence, anywhere, any time. A recent feasibility study on AR by the Service Council reported that 72 per cent of service organisations are already using or evaluating AR right now.
A more efficient future
The volatility in the oil price and a changing global market is forcing the energy industry to adapt to a fundamentally different landscape. New technologies will play a critical role in enabling the future of the energy industry, improving efficiency by automating key manual processes, ensuring vastly improved data visibility over critical assets and supporting more informed, faster decision-making. Satellite networks will be a crucial enabler, ensuring businesses benefit from IoT and other related technologies wherever they are.