... Communication Breakdown - North American Energy Pipelines

Communication Breakdown

Satellites Provide Monitoring Capability to Energy Industry
By Gerbrand Schalkwijk

Most oil and gas exploration, production and transportation takes place in areas where basic communication does not exist. The outlook is much better these days thanks to modern satellite technology, which provides communications in the most extreme and isolated locations.

satellitesNot long ago, satellite communications carried the negative stigma of being expensive, requiring power hungry large terminals that are complex to integrate with customer applications and being weather dependent. For these reasons, satellite services for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) applications, low data rate (LDR) solutions and other remote unmanned machine to machine (M2M) monitoring management services were only considered as the last resort option where terrestrial communication solutions do not exist.

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Although these were issues with older satellite technologies, it is no longer true with today’s satellite services for SCADA and remote monitoring applications. Today, options exist which provide reliable, cost-effective satellite services and small, low power terminals that are extremely easy to install and operate.

Global remote management applications, such as monitoring oil and gas pipelines, are leading toward expanding the use of satellite communications and providing a viable choice over traditional cellular and terrestrial solutions. Satellites now provide increased reliability and reduce the total cost of ownership due to operational efficiencies. This becomes critical as new environmental and safety concerns and regulations require more detailed data and higher levels of reliability than ever before.

Meeting Regulatory Mandates

In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) authored and President Barack Obama signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act, forcing U.S. pipeline owners and operators to conduct a comprehensive review of their oil and gas pipelines to identify areas of high risk. This and similar regulatory and public interest mandates push for the continuous and ubiquitous monitoring and control coverage that only satellite solutions can effectively provide with operational convenience.

Satellite communications have been combined with licensed and unlicensed radio for thorough, cost-effect coverage in the United States. Cellular technologies have also played a role as backup communications to the weather-affected VSATs. (VSAT stands for “very small aperture terminal,” which refers to small two-way satellite stations.) These hybrid approaches take advantage of low-cost radio and cellular where it is feasible and available, but ensures ubiquitous coverage, redundancy and reliability by complementing it with highly reliable satellite services which work anywhere a view to the sky is available.

Pipeline monitoring and control is a serious business, and reliability is an absolute requirement. Monitoring sites in difficult environments with extreme weather and geography may dictate the use of necessary technologies like heaters on antennas or the use of larger antennas to provide reliable signal. Necessary to maintain reliability, these types of options have been implemented for many years at remote satellite sites with great results.

Remote Solutions

Traditional types of VSAT solutions are necessary on the main monitoring points of pipelines. However, there are many monitoring points along pipelines which are less critical and require less frequent communications. These more remote points are not likely to have power available and don’t always warrant the large expense of the engineering, installation and cost of the larger sites. Thanks to new satellite products and services, a specialized terminal design specifically for these SCADA applications combined with affordable airtime, results in a reduced total cost of ownership. These SCADA satellite terminals are extremely low power, simple to operate, easy to maintain and can be installed without any specialist engineering skills.

One of the key benefits of these new satellite M2M systems is that the system is not impacted by the requirement for local infrastructure such as power. It does not require commercial power infrastructure as it uses battery/solar or wind power and needs no supporting infrastructure. Like other communications options, it can operate in a completely autonomous way with remote monitoring solutions, significantly reducing the number of site visits and operational costs. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that it works well anywhere in the world where a view to the sky is available and allows for meeting monitoring and control requirements with a single global platform.

The Hughes 9502 M2M, manufactured by Inmarsat, is an example of a terminal specifically designed for SCADA. It is a small simple two-piece design with just three components: outdoor antenna, indoor modem, and an RF cable to connect the two. It has a simple pole-mounted design and the only skill to setup the terminal is to roughly point it in the direction of the satellite. Its standby operating power is less than 1 watt, allowing off-the-grid autonomous operation.

This new terminal can be rebooted manually by remotely sending an SMS message (i.e., text messaging) instead of sending in a technician or automatically rebooted using a transmission watchdog which reboots the terminal if a transmission does not occur within a specific time period. New satellite services which give users greater operational flexibility are integrated with terminals for low power operation and use low cost, low data rate plans.

Battling the Weather

SCADA solutions generally operate in very harsh environments. Heavy rain, snow and even dust storms may degrade communication services. To counter this, many new services operate on the L-band frequency which is proven to provide 99.9 percent connectivity even in harsh weather conditions.The 9502 operates on the Inmarsat-provided Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) and as mentioned, features a 99.9 percent uptime reliability history and promise. Unlike cellular networks, which typically operate well below Inmarsat’s 99.9 percent availability, BGAN provides steady, fast and reliable communications each and every time a remote site is contacted. Many times radio towers are not feasible to reach the many remote sites still requiring personnel visits, but the BGAN M2M solution will work anywhere.

Satellite communications will become even more pertinent as the oil and gas industry expands its use of M2M beyond rigs, pipes and platforms to new areas including tracking vehicles and geo-fencing. With environmental monitoring moving up the agenda, continued advancements in L-band capabilities will ensure satellite becomes even more affordable, reliable and effective to meet these evolving needs.

Gerbrand Schalkwijk is vice president of Inmarsat’s Enterprise – Energy division.

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