Wireless Sensor Networks Enable Remote Condition Monitoring

By Gianni Minetti, Paradox Engineering SA | July 2012, Vol. 239 No. 7

With world population growing at a steady pace (the earth will be home to more than 9 billion people by 2050), global demand for energy is rapidly increasing and the untapped oil reserves lying in Africa are more and more attractive. Africa nowadays supplies around 11% of the world’s oil, but it is expected to pass North America soon to become the third-largest producing area after the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe.

West and sub-Saharan Africa are exciting lands for exploration, expected to provide great volumes to meet the mounting energy need of fast-growing economies such as Asia. However, increasing volumes don’t necessarily mean increasing profits: oil and gas companies nowadays need to improve control over sites performance and maximize production efficiency if they want to achieve their financial goals. No doubt the evolution of technologies is fundamental to increase production while cutting costs, but relevant results can be obtained by revising data management processes to ensure that decisions are made as quickly as possible and, above all, based on consistent and reliable information.

The increasing need for real-time production monitoring can be satisfied through a comprehensive and secure approach to data collection, transport and analysis. Companies can unlock the value of information coming from the production workflow only if they have a solid infrastructure to collect data from wells, refineries, production plants, pipelines and facilities, and streamline this huge amount of information into their Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) systems, where it will be stored and processed in order to extract key and relevant information to increase efficiency and prevent loss in production.

The challenge of condition monitoring is even more complex if we consider that oil exploration interests tend to move to harsh areas, such as the deepwater fields off West African coasts or the prolific fields in Angola and Nigeria. How to collect and transport data coming from these remote and even hazardous environments? In many cases, wired infrastructures are already in place, and companies are unlikely to upgrade the network or add new data points because of their expensive costs. In a typical oil or gas facility, thousands of sensors and data points are needed to ensure a proper asset monitoring, with hundreds of kilometers of cables used to connect these devices – if we calculate that a new offshore platform has approximately 800 km of wiring and that cable costs alone may vary from US$120 to 6,000 per meter, it is easy to understand why oil and gas companies are eager to protect their past investments and are not open to possible alternatives.

However, being stuck to wired process and sensor networks may prevent companies from successfully facing emerging challenges such as market demands or regulatory changes, which require more performance and efficiency by increasing data collection frequency or installing additional data points (i.e. to monitor emissions or new security parameters). Traditional infrastructures are generally complex to expand or integrate and above all in hard-to-reach locations or harsh environments where wired connectivity and wired network could be difficult, unreliable, too expensive or simply not viable.