Remote monitoring in oil and gas: a new path to profitability?

Remote monitoring in oil and gas: a new path to profitability?

Remote monitoring in oil and gas: a new path to profitability?
Credit: Honeywell

Internet of Business traveled to Honeywell’s Customer Excellence Center in Aberdeen to see how Industrial IoT (IIoT) technology is enabling onshore remote monitoring of oil and gas production platforms.

The oil and gas sector is currently facing its most testing challenge in recent years. The price of oil fell again last week, and now hovers at roughly $50 a barrel, barely comparable to the early 2014 price of $115 a barrel.

With profits tumbling, job cuts and many rigs being decommissioned, technological advancements are essential if rigs are to raise profits.

One company exploring its options is Norwegian-based energy company Statoil. The company has tasked automation control and instrumentation experts at Honeywell Process Solutions with helping it to remotely operate a periodically-manned offshore production platform in the North Sea from a control center onshore.

The production platform is at Valemon, which sits in about 440 feet of water on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, approximately 160km west of Bergen. It is one of the biggest undeveloped natural gas fields in the North Sea.

An ongoing project, making use of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology, hopes to reduce the cost of operating the platform and improve safety.

The lay of the land

For the project, Statoil built a brand-new control room onshore at Sandsli in which it installed Honeywell’s Experion Process Knowledge System. This distributed control system (DCS) is effectively a supercomputer, which provides a full data visualization screen for platform operators – the people in charge of the functioning and safety of the rig – so they can easily assess any issues on the plant.

Within the control room are five projectors acting as a live video feed so that operators have full visual contact with team members currently on Valemon for the project.

The DCS captures data from third party kit, such as 150 IP cameras on Valemon, and integrates it into the console.

The advanced displays are key to collating this data on the operator console and displaying it in a meaningful way that makes the operator proactive and more alert to possible issues.

“It’s a very powerful tool to bring that data back in in a meaningful way,” said Paul Adamson, senior systems consultant at Honeywell. It means that “whatever they see in Sandsli, the guys see in Valemon.”

Importantly, a collaboration solution exists in both control rooms, which, much like Skype, allows operators to share information visually and in real-time, so that expert advice from those not on the platform can be sought.

Valemon

To make Valemon ‘smart’ there are certain technologies that have only been implemented offshore.

The control system used to operate the industrial equipment remotely is the Experion C300, a controller which supports the integration of smart devices on the Experion platform.

Its key aspect is that only data that is meant for the controller and the server flows between the two, which means the network is never flooded.

Wireless technology is also used on Valemon for machine monitoring. The system, known as Asset Sentinel, provides onshore workers with as much data as they possible from critical equipment offshore.

To provide this data, Honeywell integrated vibration and equipment monitoring devices from condition monitoring instrumentation company, Bently Nevada, into the DCS.

Critically in an unmanned facility, these devices sit on the pumps and compressors and Asset Sentinel enables operators to bring that equipment data back through to the DCS.

Therefore, if the oil level dropped too low “the operator would instantly see on the screen that a piece of critical equipment wasn’t quite right. They can then drill down into the trends and other data to see what the issue might be, and they can then use a collaboration solution to ask other experts for advice on the best diagnostics,” Adamson said.

Lastly, Adamson noted that Valemon makes use of ‘auto device commissioning’ to recommission or recalibrate an instrument from onshore, as all the instruments are either Foundation Fieldbus or Hart.

The network

While connecting all the various aspects of a plant to the internet is well and good in theory, “you need a diverse route to make your network more robust,” Adamson said.

Using the industrial control network provided by Honeywell’s Fault Tolerant Ethernet (FTE), Statoil is able to connect the clusters on its offshore facility in Valemon with the DCS back onshore at Sandsli.

These two network routes, which use a mixture of fibre optics and copper (on the platforms), have just a five-millisecond delay over 160km.

“That is pretty new for us. We used to recommend 70km,” Adamson confirmed, but noted that he believes it will eventually go further.

Safety shutdown

Safety Manager systems both on and offshore collate all safety critical information from all devices around the plant. There is also a system to shut the platform down if required.

“Normally, you’d have a hardwired shutdown system for the platform, but onshore you don’t have that,” Adamson said. To comply with Norwegian petroleum directives, which stipulate that platforms must have an independent shutdown system, Honeywell implemented a system provided by safety automation product manufacturer, Hima.

The company also equipped “a critical alarm panel so that if anything happened [Statoil] would initiate a shutdown which would go through the Hima device to the backup Hima device on Valemon, and shut the platform down correctly,” Adamson said.

50 miles from Valemon is a fully-manned platform at Kvitebjørn, which acts as a back-up facility. If communication is lost between Sandsli and Valemon, the facility at Kvitebjørn could take over operations at both or perform a safety shutdown.

Currently the safety system instigates a 30-minute countdown for communications to reopen. If this does not happen, a shutdown will commence, even if operators at Kvitebjørn have full communication with the platform. This is paramount, as shutdown of a platform like Valemon can be both dangerous and expensive.

“Platforms in UK sector that are unmanned are typically wellheads, so if one wellhead goes down I haven’t lost my whole platform,” Adamson said. “A helicopter would go out the next day and sort the problem out, and in terms of process it might be 10-20 percent of my production down but it’s not the full platform.”

“Valemon is a full production platform with compressors, critical equipment, everything on board.” Thus, if Valemon goes down, Statoil loses the entire production facility and incurs the cost of getting the systems back up and running. Having a robust network for the remote monitoring system in place is therefore crucial to the safety and operations of the platform.

Remote monitoring benefits

Ultimately, Valemon will become unmanned for four weeks out of six. In terms of operations, it will be fully unmanned. The team that goes out for the two weeks will be a maintenance team to perform routine checks.

From this perspective, having a remote operation enables maintenance teams to be less reactive as they know the rotation of their operators. Planning this means work permits can be arranged in advance, cutting out any delays for permits to be granted.

For operation, this is important for safety as it removes workers from a potentially hazardous environment, but it also helps with regards to recruitment and cost savings on the frequent training of staff and insurance.

“Traditionally we’ve put people in places that aren’t great to work in,” Adamson confessed. This means regular helicopter flights to take workers to and from the plant, something which is not only risky and can cost roughly £10,000 a flight.

Working offshore on a gas platform is dirty, stressful, and physically demanding. The platforms are typically in remote locations and only offer tight workspaces and cramped living quarters.

Traditionally, good pay has papered over these cracks, but the testing economic climate has made this more difficult. Recruitment is therefore a problem, particularly of graduates. The demographics in the industry are getting a lot older, Adamson acknowledged, but he says with technological change “it’s a lot more interesting, even in operations.”

“We’re not removing the operators, we’re just moving them to a better environment. And it actually attracts more people, especially young people.”

All about the data

The primary benefits from using IIoT come from being able to access the platform data in one place. The data has been available to operators for some time now, but extracting it from disparate sources and making sense of it has proved difficult.

“The more flexible we make our system, the more data we can bring in and show it in a meaningful format, means that not just operators, but the production managers and the operations managers, can make more informed decisions on the process,” Adamson said.

He believes that as the industry becomes more comfortable with this technology its use will grow. Honeywell has similar projects in the pipeline, Adamson said, and is looking to take the technology further afield to renewable projects or possibly Shale well pads. For now, though, the team will be monitoring the project in the North Sea closely, with a view to moving to fully unmanned operations in August.


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