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Many oil and gas exploration companies once invested thousands of dollars each day enlisting the services of roving well inspectors to keep a watchful eye on resources in the field. Eventually, remote monitoring offered those same advantages, but implementation costs often exceeded anticipated return on investment (ROI). Today, those same inspection tasks are cost-effectively accomplished utilizing machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.
Even the most educated and experienced inspectors keeping a trained eye on assets in the field can observe only a solitary unit at a time, even when multiple rigs reside in the same area. While M2M may sound complicated, it is designed to make business simpler and more productive.
Best of all, M2M implementation is flexible enough to allow smaller companies to add well monitoring sensors one at a time to avoid any immediate overhaul of existing administrative systems. By taking this "staged" approach to M2M systems, oil and gas companies can use existing ROI data to determine which wells should be monitored next.
Some platforms now are built as a layered system, which enables solution providers to tailor implementation to meet end-user requirements. Rather than replace an entire network, many companies opt to retain existing administrative systems. For example, a pipeline company can leverage communications, logging and database components of the system without replacing administration components. The open framework enables practically any software application to directly interface through Web services.
From a technology standpoint, these new systems are indifferent to the age of the equipment on the wellheads being monitored. Today's robust, open platforms enable companies to provide fully integrated solutions for machine networks using any communications channel to move data freely between people, systems and other machines.
In addition, these platforms are vendor- and protocol-independent, so they can be configured to communicate over a wide range of communications protocols. As a general rule, if the equipment monitoring the wellhead is able to communicate over a common carrier network, it can then interact with the platform.
M2M uses autonomous applications to "talk to," monitor and control intelligent machines connected via data-collecting sensors. Moreover, that same technology now can be tapped to activate and initiate changes to machines on the receiving end.
People involved in supply-chain businesses commonly use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to exchange data over relatively short ranges. But these same networking tools also can allow companies to transmit, analyze and report on data collected at a given rig and simultaneously improve safety and efficiency in the field.
Once reserved for large exploration and production companies, M2M technology is now affordable for oil and gas companies of all sizes.
For many oil companies, M2M can offer a huge leap forward. Machines connected to oil wells routinely alert appropriate personnel of issues that require immediate attention. Instead of inspectors hoping to fall upon problems in the nick of time, microprocessors quietly assure owners and shareholders their investment always operates at optimum efficiency.
Over the years, information once gathered by employees and later entered manually onto spreadsheets has become more automated. Portable laptop computers have replaced clipboards, which required further data assimilation, transcription or analysis. What's more, these systems greatly diminish the likelihood of errors.
At best, data manually collected and transcribed was hours old by the time it was entered into the database. If mechanical problems arose at a well just after an inspection occurred, the situation likely remained undetected until the next inspection, which was typically scheduled for the following workday. Money lost from out-of-service wells could never be recovered, and costs associated with repair often multiplied exponentially.
Data collection sensors now measure flow rates, pressures, temperatures, tank levels and equipment statistics. Transmitters and receivers will relay that data via wireless telemetry to a central computer. That information is then viewed at onsite desktop computers or via Internet-enabled devices located anywhere in the world.
Instead of once-a-day, well-by-well updates, the nearly constant flow of information provided by electronically monitored wells now is displayed on an M2M monitoring application or "dashboard." The timely information immediately can be combined with data from other wells and graphically displayed for analysis. More importantly, inspectors who once traveled from well to well to collect data can be reassigned to other more significant duties.
M2M also can monitor conditions such as pressure, tank levels and power loss, and set them to trigger an alarm. These alarm messages can be sent as e-mail or text messages to cell phones. They even can be delivered to as computerized text-to-voice messages. These automated exception alerts allow operators to instantaneously receive notices without constantly sitting in front of a computer screen.
Status updates allow supervisors to quickly route maintenance crews to malfunctioning wells and enable companies to determine tank levels with greater accuracy. This advance information means product distribution scheduling can be accomplished with much greater efficiency. Applications now exist that also can improve business processes.
Microprocessors in the rigs can be programmed to communicate with GPS location microprocessors on tankers. Establishing a set of parameters on the M2M platform allows the system to control itself with minimal oversight. Once wells have pumped pre-determined oil levels into a collection tank, sensors automatically alert the nearest tanker truck and beckon drivers to collect the oil at a designated time.
While M2M systems provide the power to improve business processes through laborsaving capabilities, sensors enable many other business-process improvements. Companies can monitor data from virtually anywhere in the world and make changes to various business processes at a moment's notice.
Over the years, M2M technology has evolved to the point that systems in use today are not limited by industry or application, but rather only by imagination. As M2M gains popularity over a broad range of industrial applications, limits will diminish and use of the fine-tuned technology will become more commonplace.
While applications for oil and gas exploration and production represent only the tip of the proverbial M2M iceberg, companies using these systems claim productivity levels once considered mere pipe dreams.
From wildcatters to horizontal drillers, oil and gas industry leaders have been defined by their willingness to adopt and integrate new technology. M2M systems have already ushered in definitive changes and increased efficiencies across the board. However, M2M offers exploration and production companies increased productivity at the well, inside the tankers and throughout their labor pools.