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Oil & gas: Bringing the expert to the problem with LTE

Oil and gas companies need reliable and resilient communications more than most, so the development of intrinsically safe devices and LTE networks is helping many in this sector improve their operations. Sam Fenwick has the details

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Tablets with large screens make it possible to view and annotate complex schematics in the field

Six years ago the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico claimed the lives of 11 workers and cost BP $61 billion (£46 billion). While the root causes of this tragedy were a lax safety culture and miscommunication between BP and its contractors, rather than a failure of radio comms, it highlights the extent to which off-shore communications can be considered mission-critical.

Over at Gassco’s three gas landing stations in Emden and Dornum, Germany, modern radio communications are making a difference courtesy of a Dimetra IP Micro (DIPM) TETRA system. Some of the benefits include clearer communications through the use of noise-cancelling handset technology, together with man-down and GPS location features.

Frank Tabbert, process and ICT professional at Gassco Germany, notes the location function is “particularly useful during weekends when there are only two operators working – one inside and one outside the plant. Previously if a member of staff was lost we had great difficulty in locating them.”

Kevin Boyd, VP of business development, mobility solutions at ecom instruments, a supplier of intrinsically safe LTE devices, says that although the oil and gas industry is often conservative in its approach to technology adoption the drop in the price of crude oil following the financial crisis has served as a catalyst. He explains that oil companies and their suppliers are being forced to look at new ways of improving employee productivity and reducing the drag caused by keeping paper records in an effort to reduce business costs.

“If you look at the offshore side some of the constraints include the limited number of people who can work on platforms and the money and time spent transporting them to and from shore. However, the need to have experts on-site can be reduced by streaming video back to control centres. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; well a video is worth a thousand pictures.”

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Tampnet provides an LTE service to offshore installations in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea

Boyd’s thoughts are shared by Trygve Hagevik, chief sales officer at Tampnet, a company that provides LTE and fibre connections for oil and gas operators in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

“We are seeing a growth in the demand for and use of tablets and mobile cameras (typically explosion-proof ) in the production environment – specifically for remote inspections. Our customers already report that use of such devices
reduces offshore travel because they have immediate access to shore-based expertise. We are also seeing growing interest in real-time monitoring of various parts and machinery via LTE machine-to-machine connectivity.”   

Boyd adds that new devices’ larger screens allow engineers to view complex diagrams and schematics in the field and use them to redmark any discrepancies. “Where you have a need for high data transmission requirements these devices can complement the radio infrastructure. We definitely see a need for the TETRA infrastructure, but these devices bring a new way of working for people out in the field.”

Boyd notes that from ecom’s perspective augmented reality is just another app and the company works closely with Samsung and Sonim to ensure that the software on the standard rugged devices it makes intrinsically safe (such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab Active) can run such apps without any issues.

He adds that Bluetooth beacons are also of use to the sector, as in combination with smartphones they allow indoor positioning, which in turn means staff can be alerted if they
or a colleague enter a restricted area. They can also be used to show where key pieces of equipment are and deliver a stream of information about them as smart device users move closer to them, or provide a prompt should they enter somewhere that requires specific personal protective equipment to be worn. Boyd says that a number of pilots investigating this approach are happening and that ecom has an important role to play in this area as its Bluetooth beacons are the first to be zone 1 (an area where a flammable atmosphere is occasionally likely in normal operations) certified.

Returning to critical communications, “there seem to be two camps: one that sees LTE, smartphones and tablets bringing complementary things to the existing TETRA infrastructure, and one that sees them as a replacement for TETRA,” Boyd says. “Our view is that these devices bring complementary capabilities to the existing infrastructure. It’s possible now for LTE/Wi-Fi devices to connect to the TETRA network and using push to talk be able to talk to other people.”

Tampnet has seen quite extensive use of LTE connections by the oil and gas industry. Hagevik says its LTE network
is typically used by offshore assets as their primary communication link to shore, making it mission-critical, though some may retain a VSAT service as a backup. He adds that the company’s LTE network is “particularly compelling” for use by floating and mobile units where fibre or radio link communications would struggle because of pitch and roll, together with rotation and other factors.

“We deliver a non-contended layer 2 [Ethernet] service with very high availability. In these scenarios our 4G LTE connection is used for all corporate applications – both critical and non-critical – that being voice, video conferencing, enterprise resource planning, file transfer, internet, and so on. Typically each company will determine their own prioritisation of traffic on layer 3.

“The layer 2 service produced on 4G LTE now has a history of almost three years and has proven as stable as line-of-sight connections to a nearby platform connected to fibre,” he continues. “We work to harden our networks to the same extent as public safety organisations’, and even further in many cases. As an example, our Gulf of Mexico LTE deployment will contain multiple distributed EPC instances spread over a large geographical area to maximise redundancy and uptime. All sites will have battery backup, and most offshore assets such as platforms, rigs and vessels will typically be visible to more than one base station.”

Hagevik says that several of Tampnet’s clients have installed TETRA systems on platforms “where we also have LTE base stations, and co-existence is usually trouble-free. We have
not yet performed any integration or replacement work, but expect this to happen in the future if and when the LTE/ 3GPP standards become mature in this domain and TETRA/LTE combination end user devices support the necessary functionality.

“We suspect that when push-to-talk [PTT] is enabled
in Releases 13 and 14, and end user devices are ready, we
will enable this in our network as well, based on customer demand. Currently this demand is not there. We suspect that combination of LTE and TETRA will happen at some point, and then PTT will be an important function,” he explains.

Hagevik adds that Tampnet is looking into roaming agreements in the North Sea, in line with those already in place in the Gulf of Mexico. “In the UK crews have been able to
take their smartphones and mobile devices offshore for some time, but there has been no mobile coverage available. On the Norwegian continental shelf the situation is reversed – there has been some GSM coverage but crews have been forbidden to take their devices offshore for safety reasons [risk of explosions].

“Our coverage in the North Sea as a whole is approaching 100 per cent and we believe the Norwegian restrictions on personal devices are likely to be softened in the near future. With roaming agreements in place it means crew on platforms, offshore vessels, merchant navy, leisure boats, cruise liners, and so on will have access to a state of the art 4G LTE network through their normal service provider on their smartphones – in the middle of the North Sea,” he says.

We’ve seen that oil and gas operators are making use of
a wide range of wireless communications to improve the 
speed and quality of their decision-making, as well as ensure offshore operations are more connected with those on the mainland. Enabling crews to stay in contact with their loved ones while working away and remotely monitoring their safety are also benefits. Given 5G’s focus on major verticals and the pressure on the sector to improve efficiency in a low oil-price environment we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of mobile broadband in this industry...


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