It’s 7 a.m. in Midland, Texas. Lease operators are preparing for the day before they leave home by checking their smartphone apps to see if there are any alarms from the SCADA system or the field communications network. One operator notices a pair of alarms for rod pump failure at a well pad on its route, so it sends a text message notifying its team that they will be late for the morning meeting.

In addition, there are a couple of high-producing wells that are shut in at a facility that happens to be the last stop on the operator’s daily schedule. Instead of making the 2-hr drive out to the site immediately, technicians open their laptops and log into the remote terminal unit (RTU) to check the site’s emergency shut-down conditions and pump-off controller over the network. It appears the thunderstorm the night before caused lightning strikes in the area, hitting a tower nearby and knocking out grid power at the well pad.

As a result, the backbone radio network is down, but the well pad is still online thanks to a wireless mesh network that uses self-healing intelligence to hop between facilities and find the next backbone tower. The SCADA system only lost contact with the equipment for a few seconds while the network reconverged, and the site has been safely and autonomously controlled by the RTU.

After confirming the pumps need to be restarted, the operator sends a reset command from its laptop to each controller, and within a few minutes the pump alarms clear from the RTU and in the SCADA system. By solving the immediate problem remotely and avoiding a prolonged shut-in, the operator maintains critical production, ensures the emergency shut-down systems in the RTU controlled the site safely and eliminates the cost of an unscheduled site visit. And, with the ability to instantly communicate the operator’s situation via group message, the whole team has stayed in sync. The weather is out of an operator’s control, but for a company that considers its field network a vital utility for achieving daily production targets, resiliency and availability are money savers.

If this story sounds like it happens five years in the future, it doesn’t. Connectivity has enabled a single lease operator in the Eagle Ford Shale to manage more than 60 multiwell facilities easily and efficiently using web-based software tools and remote video. It is not just happening for two of the three largest producers in the Eagle Ford. New communications technologies together with intelligent RTU applications are helping to drive down lease operating expenses across all of the major shale plays. Many companies have realized that a technology- driven strategy yields higher production levels, enables greater situational awareness, lowers operating expenses and attracts a younger workforce that has grown up with technology at their fingertips.

Automation benefits

IDC Energy Insights, a market provider of intelligence for the global technology industry, forecasts that the top 50% of oil and gas companies will double down on oilfield operation automation to double the productivity of those operations by 2020.

For field technicians the power to connect with their RTU control systems and enter set points for any plunger lift, gas lift, or any other artificial lift or control method in the field right from their laptops can be a game changer.

Wireless connectivity (e.g., using WiFi or Bluetooth) enables timely adjustments to lift optimization while technicians enjoy the simple convenience of not having to walk up to the RTU and connect with a serial or USB cable.

For those who have spent scorching summer days in West Texas or blustery winter mornings in northern Alberta, the option to stay inside the vehicle is highly attractive. Beyond the pure convenience, the wireless network acts as a force multiplier, enabling each operator to be more productive every day.

As has been seen with some early adopters of fieldwide broadband communications, the best practice is to implement strong access control to the production equipment and then limit the parameters that technicians can change remotely.

In general, this is a good way to reduce risk while introducing new technologies to the operating environment. Companies can control local access to the production systems either by shared password, which is less secure, or over the network, where centralized rolebased authentication systems can be monitored by IT.

Many producers are somewhere in the middle when it comes to the digital transition, and as operations teams increasingly work with IT on field automation and communications projects, the ease of integration and shift in company culture will continue. The results of this IT and operational technologies (OT) collaboration can save companies thousands of dollars per facility in communications costs by leveraging a single field network infrastructure for the entire life cycle of the field.

Subscription-based communications services can drown a company in operating expenses, but they do offer producers a quick method of connecting a handful of assets. When the field expands to hundreds of production facilities, most producers want to own and control their own field network. However, with the high volume of merger and acquisition activity in shale these days, onshore fields can expand and shrink rapidly, causing challenges for IT and OT teams as they integrate various vendor technologies and face difficult decisions about whether or not to standardize.

Communication solutions

There are good solutions on the market that offer producers fl exibility in network architecture and radio technologies. A field network that uses high-speed carrier- grade wireless solutions at its core and self-healing broadband mesh to distribute capacity and access for mobility with low-power narrowband reaching out to the sensors is what producers should expect when automation drives production and when change is the norm.

From the supermajors to smaller independent producers the practice of operating by exception using the power of remote connectivity is either already in practice or being rolled out as part of a full digital strategy. As operators begin to experiment with virtual measurement solutions and attempt to reduce the hardware footprint at their facilities, a modern network that reliably transmits sensor and meter data while also providing technicians secure access to do their jobs more effectively becomes the essential fabric connecting the digital oil field.

A lease operator in Midland saves its company money every time it avoids an unscheduled trip to the well pad by resolving an issue remotely. Without connected, automated production systems and real-time visibility to the field, companies have a difficult road ahead if they wish to stay competitive in the shale plays. The good news is these technologies are more economical than ever, which can level the playing field as producers of all sizes aim to drive down operating expenses and focus on high-return assets.

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