Digitization is transforming the oil and gas industry. Starting with the equipment used in oil exploration and drilling and extending to automation, remote monitoring, data security, and logistics, connected systems play a key role.
The oil and gas industry is in the spotlight, as petroleum and shale oil producers fight for dominance in a marketplace that is seeing decreased demand due to a slowing global economy and COVID-19. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil, followed by Russia and Iraq. For one month, the U.S. overtook Saudi Arabia but returned to its spot as the eighth largest oil exporter, behind Iraq, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iran. In early March 2020, Russia and Saudi America engaged in a price war that further impacts the U.S. shale oil fuel industry, which is heavily leveraged and dependent on government subsidies. To remain profitable, energy companies must turn to technology.
The increasing digitization of the oil and gas industry means that some companies are operating like technology firms, utilizing high-level data and security systems. Harshit Sharma, lead author of The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas, said, “The digital scale-up across the industry will eventually lead to a new era of companies. These companies will be leaders in innovation, resulting in faster, more agile product rollouts, deployments, and feedback loops, as well as an increased focus on cyber security and enterprise-wide data sharing.”
Digital transformation will help reduce costs and increase revenues as technology identifies new areas for oil and gas exploration. In addition, automation is increasingly replacing skilled workers in physical and computational roles and increasing workplace safety for those who remain.
Sensors Take Over Data Gathering
Inside of wells, connected technologies that utilize sensors and guided wave radar devices gather geological measurements. Using dynamic data, a digital twin can be created to depict sonic and density rates, estimate the shear viscosity of the oil or gas, and activate the appropriate drilling processes.
TE Connectivity is one of several leading connectivity companies that provides sensor solutions for the oil and gas industry, including pressure, position, temperature, and force sensors. These components are used to monitor well sites and collect a wide range of data including pressure, temperature, flow, vibration, position, temperature and, using either pressure or float switches, level measurements. The data flow is typically sensor to gateway (either wired or wireless), gateway to cloud platform (backhaul is usually cellular, but can be satellite), and cloud platform to analytics via predictive AI, visualization, and mobile apps and is used to maximize production and minimize service and operation costs.
“Sensors have created the opportunity for much of the control and monitoring of well sites to be unmanned. Companies such as Nabors are also investing in robotics in the oil and gas industry to further capabilities in the space,” said a TE Connectivity representative. “One simple example is increasing the battery life of devices installed in remote applications. By reducing the current consumption of analog and digital sensors, the sensors can last longer without requiring a battery to be changed. Wireless sensor packages also reduce the need for wire and cabling; if the sensors are installed in an environment with rodents, certain cable materials, if exposed, can be eaten, causing a break in the signal. Wireless minimizes the need for cables as well as makes a neat package. TE pressure transducers can be manufactured in wireless packages as well as wired directly into a wireless device.”
Sensor products are used in both onshore and offshore installations and must meet rigorous hazardous and harsh environment standards, including ATmosphere EXplosibles (ATEX) and International Electrotechnical Commission for Explosive Atmospheres (IECEx or EX) approvals. To withstand exposure to corrosive substances, temperature extremes, submersion, shock, vibration, pressure, and even explosion, these industrial components feature rugged, non-corrosive materials such stainless steel and PDVF and PFTE.
“Sensors also need to be packaged for outdoor environments,” said TE Connectivity. “Sensors such as pressure transducers require testing and calibration over temperature to compensate for changes in ambient and media fluctuations. The sensor needs to operate within published specifications, whether the sun is hitting the sensor in 100°F temperatures at high noon in Galveston, Texas, or after the sun has set.”
Robotics Take on the Risks
To improve workplace safety and reduce labor costs, drones and other robots are moving into more operational areas, including high-risk areas where tasks can be accomplished without human workers. This will require data sharing across equipment and command centers using Industry 4.0 for operations, reliable data exchanges, cyber security, and cloud storage.
BP was an early adopter of these technologies, using drones in 2006 to evaluate road conditions for trucks in Alaska. Today drone makers are collaborating with oil and gas companies to develop custom drones with data collection capabilities. They are commonly used for aerial data acquisition, inspecting and monitoring assets in harsh environments, such as inspections of unmanned offshore production platforms. Using these technologies, ConocoPhillips reported a 75% reduction in the time taken to inspect oil tankers for external defects and cargo storage. Shell also uses them to inspect facilities.
Drones, combined with augmented reality (AR) capabilities, can also be used to evaluate equipment and infrastructure. Equipped with sensors, antennas, cameras, and command and control systems, drones are able to observe and deliver real-time data as if a human were on the scene.
Chevron is reportedly experimenting with the use of drones to assist in crisis areas, such as oil spills, and Russian company Gazprom is assessing the use of drones for surveillance and monitoring of assets in extremely cold environments.
Rosenberger designs connectivity products for drones that are used in inspection, surveying, monitoring, and other tasks in industrial environments. They serve the gas and oil industry by inspecting pipelines and other installations. Reliable connections are critical for drones used in harsh environments.
“RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) are an ideal tool for generating and disseminating high-quality information. Industrial inspections, such as the monitoring of power lines, mobile phone towers, oil and gas pipelines, railways, or the detection of methane gas can be carried out more easily, safely, and efficiently thanks to unmanned aerial systems,“ said Toni Scheuerlein, product manager, drones and robotics, Rosenberger. „These products enable high-quality and reliable acquisition and transmission of the corresponding data. The longer the UAV is in the air, the more benefit can be generated. The magnetic RoPD connector system enables the user to easily connect and fast recharge the energy storage devices, making the UAV operational again as quickly as possible.”
Designed for Offshore
The extreme and hazardous conditions of offshore oil and gas fields demand a particularly robust cable and connector design. “The offshore industry presents challenging conditions, including high temperatures, oil, chemicals, and UV radiation,” said Frank Thorn, head of market unit industry, low frequency division at HUBER+SUHNER. The company has developed a fire-resistant cable, Radox OFL (Oil and Gas Flexible Lightweight) for monitoring, control, and sensor applications in the offshore industry. It has a threshold of 120°C (sheath) and 145°C (core), which enables it to exceed the lifetime of standard offshore cables, which are designed to operate at up to 90°C. The cable is fire-resistant and low smoke halogen free (LSFH) and core cables will not melt or drip in the event of a short circuit. It is also resistant to oil, mud, and hydraulic oil in accordance with the NEK 606 cable standard for the oil and gas industry. Thorn says it will show “no sign of any brittle breakage, even after 10 to 12 years, unlike conventional rubber cables.”
WAGO’s 750 XTR I/O system is an EX product that is well-suited for oil and gas connections, says Charlie Norz, automation product manager at WAGO. The system is designed for nonincendive devices that are mounted in UL Class 1, Division 2, and IEC Zone 2 locations where ignitable quantities of gas are present.
“We also offer intrinsically safe I/O modules that can be wired to intrinsically safe sensors and actuators located in Zone 1 and Zone 0 locations. These modules ensure there are no ignition points due to the wiring of the devices.”
SOURIAU has introduced SWIM Series (Shallow Water Immersion) connectors for shallow-water immersible equipment, which must be watertight and counter contact corrosion. The series features lightweight thermoplastic shells that are resistant to corrosion, cathodic delamination, and UV exposure. threaded coupling mechanisms, and two O-rings at the mating interface to create a watertight connection even at low pressure. Submersible designs must also take into account the pressure exerted on the seals, and therefore the immersion depth, explained Souriau’s Marine Product Manager, Vincent Mansour.
As the extractive industries expand their operations into new regions, continued innovation in the connectivity products that serve them will be needed. Only the most rugged and high-reliability electronics will make the grade.
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