Oil and gas exploration rarely occurs in places like San Diego, Calif., where blue skies and mild temperatures are the norm. Instead, oil and gas companies must go where there are raw materials, and often this means dealing with the worst conditions that Mother Nature can dish out, everything from arctic cold to blazing temperatures combined with fierce and unpredictable weather events and natural disasters.

These locations are not great workplaces for people. Consequently, companies are turning to technology to help bring workers in from offshore ships and rigs. With emerging technologies like the Internet of Things enabling remote monitoring of critical infrastructure and processes, workers will increasingly be able to do their jobs from onshore facilities or even from the comfort of their homes halfway around the world.

Technology drivers

The trend toward reducing the number of offshore workers or those facing hazardous conditions is just one of the factors driving the adoption of advanced communications and data management technology at the network’s edge. Another important driver is the industry push for a common operating picture (COP) for improving incident response.

According to the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers, a COP “is a computing platform based on GIS technology that provides a single source of data and information for situational awareness, coordination, communication and data archival to support emergency management and response personnel and other stakeholders involved in or affected by an incident.”

A COP involves gathering data from offshore platforms, drillships, ROVs, docks, support vessels and onshore field sites. COP data can include vessel positioning information, weather, sensor feeds and large volumes of audio and video data. Once the data are gathered (Figure 1), they are then transmitted via satellite systems and compiled into dashboards to inform the response team’s efforts. To function effectively, a COP must visually show all the information within an area of responsibility in real time or near-real time.

FIGURE 1. A fully functioning COP requires a robust communications network. (Source: Pacific Star Communications and Oceaneering International)

Implementing a COP can be a complex undertaking. One company with the necessary expertise is Oceaneering International Inc. A key emphasis of late for Oceaneering has been to work with oil and gas companies to pull together all the technology and IT pieces needed to deploy COP platforms.

Increasingly, ships and offshore drilling platforms are becoming data centers to enable COP deployments. But given their remote locations, they hardly represent the ideal environment for a data center. Traditionally, IT deployed on the ship or rig has been rack-mounted datacenter- type equipment designed for ideal data center environmental conditions. Data-centerquality computer networking equipment is not optimized for space—it has requirements for continuous environmental conditioning; requires additional auxiliary equipment to protect against “dirty power” and outright power outages; and requires bulky, expensive crating for shipping. Shipping costs and customs delays alone can add significant operational expenses when equipment needs to be moved on and off a rig, particularly on short notice.

Military grade

Just as COP technology and other technologies have origins in the military, the oil and gas industry is starting to look at data center technologies similar to what the military uses in tactical operations around the world. As data and reliable communications links become more important to both ongoing operations and emergency responses, oil and gas providers can ill afford to rely on networking equipment that cannot withstand environmental extremes. The need to solve this potentially critical problem has led to close collaboration between Oceaneering, a long-time player in the oil and gas industry, and Pacific Star Communications (PacStar), a supplier of ruggedized networking systems to the U.S. military.

While government and commercial industries are very different, the needs for communication at the edge of the network are similar. They both need proven technology solutions that operate in harsh environments and are tailored to meet their unique needs. For the oil and gas industry PacStar has developed a range of modular solutions that meet specific industry needs.

For these types of systems the U.S. Department of Defense requires the best available size, weight and power as well as security and ruggedness, making these systems well-suited for mission-critical situations in the oil and gas industry. PacStar products are designed with an enclosure architecture so that the modules can be easily transported and then operated right out of their chassis together with full power conditioning and backup (Figure 2). PacStar systems are significantly smaller than typical network servers intended for rack-mounted deployments.

FIGURE 2. PacStar 400 Series modules are significantly smaller and lighter and uses less power than typical rack-mounted systems. (Source: Pacific Star Communications and Oceaneering International)

Companies can manage their networks by using any existing original equipment manufacturer network management tools, or they can use PacStar’s wizardbased IQ-Core software for their network management functions. Simplified network management can be important for lightly staffed edge operations where workers must be able to have a range of tasks, including many routine network management activities.

There are several approaches to ruggedizing technology that the industry has adopted, some involving the use of proprietary network technologies. What is different about PacStar is the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology from vendors such as Cisco, Aruba, Haivision, Riverbed, Brocade and more—the top makers of secure interoperable enterprise-class technology.

The advantage of using COTS technologies is that most oil and gas companies already have standardized and deployed these technologies into their corporate environments. This means they don’t have to change their existing environment and can take advantage of the wealth of trained experts that they might already have in-house.

Patented architecture

PacStar products employ a patented electro-mechanical architecture that allows operation in compact, modular chassis enclosures. While the starting point for PacStar products is standard COTS technology, the equipment is stripped down to the circuit board, and then the enclosures, chassis, power systems and thermal systems are rebuilt. All circuit boards are pretested prior to rebuilding them to eliminate any boards that are unable to stand up to extended environmental issues.

Hardware reliability means fewer repairs and less maintenance, but perhaps more importantly it gives oil and gas companies the confidence that they can roll out mission-critical applications that require dependable communications and networking links in the most extreme conditions imaginable. By having a lower failure rate of equipment, operational downtime can be minimized. Conversely, when a company sends data center equipment to the field that is not designed to handle extreme temperatures, shock and vibration as well as frequent moves, the company will inevitably suffer equipment failure, thus leading to operational downtime.

Through ongoing collaboration, Oceaneering and PacStar are giving companies the tools and technologies they need to safely reduce offshore staffing requirements and implement COP platforms, all without missing a beat, no matter how extreme the weather conditions.