Supporting oil and gas across the supply chain

The oil and gas industries rely on effective communications for safe and efficient operations right across the supply chain, from below ground to petrol pump, creating the need for a number of high-integrity systems and associated applications, as Richard Martin reports

We need oil, and will continue to do so for some time. Looking at the entire supply chain, exploration teams will need local communications, as well as connecting to drones or satellites to send data for analysis. In the construction of rigs and pipelines, the teams will need to ensure safety along with the smooth movement of equipment. Once operational, pipelines can require long-range automated communications.

In the refinery, automated monitoring can reduce manpower, although there will still be personnel needing radios when working where explosive hazards exist. Refineries and storage close to populated areas place a high premium on safety and public alerting systems. Drivers of delivery vehicles can be connected through radios that identify their location for effective management.

So, what are the comms options for these stages of the supply chain?

End-to-end support

TISSCOM in Russia supports all aspects of the oil and gas supply chain with communications systems matched to the specific needs of the users. Rushan Amirov, owner and CEO, says: “Taking exploration as an example, seismic data from the teams in remote locations is sent back for analysis at a central location over WiMAX.

“A network of base stations links to the team’s trucks over distances of 20km and quickly sends large packets of data. In this case, satellite communication is another possible link, but the set-up requires specific skills and time. The WiMAX solution has been found to be easy to use and integrate.” Voice communications with the teams happens via a TETRA radio system.

PJSC TATNEFT is one of the major oil producers, which operates across Russia and beyond with wells, refineries and retail facilities. For refining and other facilities, TISSCOM has installed a TETRA system from DAMM Cellular Networks for this customer.

Amirov explains: “We favour TETRA for this application as it gives us the combination of data with voice facilities such as group calls and security. We are supporting telemetry and machine interfaces; for example, the control of pumps and other vital equipment.” The TETRA network also provides two-way group communications.

He adds: “Frequencies in the 450MHz band are available in Russia for mission-critical LTE, but for our petrochemical customers the technology is still not sufficiently robust in terms of coverage and availability. However, where coverage is good it can be useful for large data transfer. We are equipping some users with TETRA/LTE hybrid devices such as the Airbus Tactilon Dabat. In our view a dedicated private LTE network is not economic at this time for our customers.”

Separately, Hytera provided TATNEFT with TETRA radios as well as a Control Center Automated System (CCAS) to install some new and different applications on Hytera smart radios. The Hytera PTC760 smart radio allows users to make and receive calls and data from broadband LTE and Wi-Fi networks and the narrowband TETRA network.

TATNEFT has developed a workflow management application which assigns tasks for each employee. Employees send back a message acknowledging receipt of the task and send another one on completion of the job. This ARMITS application is downloadable to any approved smartphone.

ARMITS also supports the data application for monitoring the implementation of the work plan. Usually the application exchanges data with the control centre via LTE and Wi-Fi as the primary networks, but if these are not available, the data can still be transmitted via the IP-based TETRA network backbone with use of the TetraFlex API function library from DAMM.

TATNEFT uses controllers with an Airbus TW1M radio modem, which provides telemetry data transmission from oil production facilities to transmit data for industrial control systems, including telemetry transmission, remote control equipment and positioning systems, as well as the ability to remotely control the process. Hytera also supplied its TETRA BT500 Radio Data Modems for telemetry transmission and the remote control of equipment and positioning systems.

It can be noted that Siemens has deployed a WiMAX system in the Gulf of Mexico covering thousands of square miles, in operation since 2011; 120 WiMAX base stations support SCADA telemetry, voice and video on and between platforms, as well as back to shore, and to vessels near the rigs.

Broadband LTE options

Stephane Daeuble, Nokia enterprise solutions marketing leader, observes: “The industry’s needs are, as ever, high reliability and security, as offered by their landlines, but now also over wireless to help modernise operations for increased efficiency and increased safety.

“Private LTE suits the needs of most sites and brings significant benefits when large coverage is required and the RF environment is challenging – a regular occurrence in the oil and gas sectors, and something that Wi-Fi has challenges with. We have provided such a system for Beach Energy in Western Australia. It connects both personnel and machinery such as valves and pumps. This enables 24-hour control from a central location.”

Is WiMAX still seen as a serious alternative? “WiMAX is an ageing technology, an attempt from Wi-Fi to move beyond small office/home coverage,” argues Daeuble. “But in 2019, WiMAX has dwindling support and there is very little development in that space. In comparison, 4G/LTE has evolved since its inception to become more than just a mobile broadband technology and to now support critical machine communication and IoT. Its latest iteration, 4.9G, offers low latency of 10-20ms, 3-5 x 9s reliability and gigabit data rates.

“It is also a gateway to 5G with a smooth evolution to 5G industrial ecosystems when they are ready. Real-time video over LTE is supported and can be augmented with analytic features; for example, surveillance, spotting leaks or early signs of fire. Standalone narrowband LTE Internet of Things (NB-IoT) sensors may have battery lives of four to 10 years, very suitable for use in oil and gas to avoid extra cabling when digitalising processes. LTE is versatile and so can offer all that is needed over one network – voice, PTT, data, IoT, etc.”

Daeuble adds: “Finally, LTE is a mobile technology, meaning that it connects people and vehicles on the move, and provides location. So, for oil and gas it aids safety as well as cost-effective operations. Add to that the possibilities offered by drones, which can be controlled by LTE and are able to stream HD video at the same time. These can remain in range of an LTE network over significant distances, even for long pipelines.”

Offshore LTE solutions

Marc Jadoul, strategic marketing director at Nokia, talks about offshore and exploration. “Mobility also comes into play in connecting vessels with static facilities such as rigs. Large files can be exchanged between maintenance or resupply teams. Thinking about exploration, a small private LTE network can be set up at a remote location to support the team as connecting sensors. Satellite links can transfer files back to base, but these are expensive. Edge cloud computing, leveraging on-site computing capabilities to manage data processing and data flows, makes it possible to analyse 80-90% of the data on-site and then only a smaller completed report file needs to be sent back. This reduces the costs of satellite backhaul and enables faster decision-making.”

Jadoul continues: “We also offer flexibility of business models, for example, private wireless connectivity as a managed solution. Smaller organisations, companies or sites can be provided with a plug-and-play communications system that includes spectrum, edge computing, access points, applications and user equipment, managed in Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud.”

Are there Nokia LTE devices available to meet the safety requirements in oil and gas? Daeuble responds: “We are mainly focused on the network and supporting applications, but we have a large ecosystem of supporting companies offering devices suitable for rugged use in ATEX or IECEx environments.”

Jadoul adds: “Nokia also offers small routers with temperature, electromagnetic, shock and vibration hardening to connect multiple sensors or subsystems in a vehicle or static system, offering reliable and secure IP/MPLS communications over 4G backhaul. ATEX enclosures for the LTE base stations are available, although these are not always necessary as the equipment can be installed outside and still connect into the risk areas.”

Distribution networks will generally be able to use public 3G and 4G networks. Jadoul notes: “Nokia private LTE networks are used in the static and remote sites, but companies can roam onto the public network and use smart transportation tools to direct and manage their distribution fleets effectively. IoT and other sensors can add information about delays and hazards and vehicle location information uploaded over public LTE.

“Asset management tools are also available to predict and optimise the usage and maintenance of vehicles and equipment. Another useful service is geo-positioning of assets. Customers find this important as expensive equipment can be misplaced at the end of a shift. The LTE geo-location capability can be used as a basis for geo-fencing applications, which alerts workers and prevents vehicles from entering into no-go areas.”

Intrinsically safe (IS) LTE devices are available. For example, the German manufacturer ecom has recently introduced the Smart-Ex 02 LTE phone. This has a five-inch screen and is rated for hazardous Zone 1 and Division 1 areas (where flammable gases, vapours or liquids are present continuously). PTT and emergency buttons are provided that can be used by operators wearing gloves, as can the built-in camera. It has a 24-hour battery life and can be used in temperatures ranging from -20 to 60 degrees centigrade. IS accessories include the CUBE 800 thermal camera and the Smart Ex watch.

Motorola Solutions has also been an advocate for dedicated broadband spectrum for critical infrastructure entities, and has grown its enterprise broadband portfolio in the US with the launch of Nitro, a cloud-based, end-to-end LTE solution for commercial customers that operates on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum.

TETRA’s proven record

WiMAX, Wi-Fi, LTE and other broadband technologies can bring new capabilities into the oil and gas industry, but secure and resilient voice communications are still vital and TETRA has a proven record in this space, as well as an increasing capability to utilise data and connect to existing IT systems and infrastructure.

In addition to the well-understood features of group calls and the emergency button, TETRA radios can be programmed to include other features, such as man-down, or ambience listening. Sepura has provided its STP8X100 radios to the Shell petrochemical plant on Pulau Bukom island near Singapore. Radios have been programmed with a fast pump shut-off feature, which supports the loading and unloading from ships.

The overall deployment comprises two base stations and more than 1,000 fixed and mobile and ATEX-certified hand-portable radios. Major TETRA manufacturers including Motorola Solutions, Hytera and Airbus all offer ATEX intrinsically safe radios in their TETRA range. TETRA is also used extensively for machine-to-machine and SCADA control and telemetry.

Motorola says in North America, the majority of large petrochemical plants rely on P25 systems for critical voice communications. They are integrating voice and data communications, video analytics and artificial intelligence. Combining previously disparate systems provides greater situational awareness at plants as personnel can monitor facilities remotely and respond quickly and appropriately in any situation.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of private narrowband communication systems is that they can deliver guaranteed coverage even in emergency situations as they can be designed with hardened infrastructure to withstand environmental disasters, high levels of redundancy and standby, or standalone power supplies. Public 4G broadband networks are not designed to this level of resilience, while in many countries, private LTE networks may struggle to find available spectrum.

Multiple comms options

With so many options, potential users could be forgiven for being very confused. The broadband contenders all offer the potential to reduce manpower costs and improve safety through remote video links, large file transfer, or drone control. WiMAX has a footprint in oil and gas, and can link to short-range WLAN comms. Maybe the long-term future of WiMAX is open to question, but it is finding a place in aviation with the AeroMACS solution. What is beyond doubt is that 4G LTE will link to 5G in the future, offering ever-higher data rates and voice facilities on a common network. This could also encompass narrowband IoT capabilities for sensors throughout the operating areas. Of course, LTE is just one candidate for IoT linkages; others could be integrated with WiMAX or narrowband systems to provide information to the control rooms.

TETRA, DMR and other narrowband technologies continue to maintain a foothold and are proven, accepted options for major oil and gas plants for the immediate future. The data capabilities are still consistent with many M2M communication needs – SCADA has already been used for oil pipeline monitoring, for example.

Furthermore, a range of terminals have been developed over decades to meet the everyday needs of end-users in hostile environments, frequently wearing gloves. Now a number of manufacturers are offering or actively developing hybrid TETRA/LTE handsets that enable users to have the best of both worlds.

Finally, the oil and gas industry must look to continuously improve its safety and environmental footprint. The need for sensing and warning systems where the public and the environment are at risk from petrochemical movements or operations is paramount.