With the need for employees in the upstream oil and gas industry to work on increasingly complex, large-scale projects, major producers are turning to high-tech solutions to improve safety, efficiency and reliability.

Enter the age of the digital oil field, a term which has now been around for about five years. It encompasses everything from gas leak detection to real-time production calculations.

Combining the different data streams received from fields and allowing operators to access it on a single platform is the next step in streamlining the industry. It is also intended to help bridge the chronic skills deficit in the sector.

The level of information we are getting from the field is far greater than a few years ago

Walid Gamali, 3W Networks

US consultants Booz & Company forecasts a shortfall of up to 1.7 million skilled staff in the global oil and gas industry by 2030. Up to half the current workforce is likely to retire within the next 10 years. Consequently, the pressure to replace skills will most likely be felt on the technical side of the business where shortages are acute and business demands most intense.

Sophisticated technology for the oil industry

As production technology in the industry becomes more sophisticated, the more information is collected and the more data operators have to deal with.

“Today, geophysicists no longer roll out printed seismic sections on the floor, geologists no longer hand contour structure maps, production engineers no longer maintain physical well files, and operations managers monitor offshore platforms in real-time from the head office,” says Ezat Zarasvand, general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Houston-headquartered firm The Information Store (iStore).

The iStore is one of a number of software and hardware firms that have grown over the past two decades in response to increased demand for IT specifically designed for the oil industry.

The ability to transfer all of the information from oil production facilities has revolutionised the industry.

“In the early 2000s, the requirements coming in from consultants and producers were somewhat disparate,” says Walid Gamali, chief executive at UAE-headquartered communications systems integrator 3W Networks.

“They would want fibre-optic lines for the computers and CCTV [closed-circuit television] systems for security and there was no economic way of bringing those systems together. With the digital age, you don’t need to have a number of different systems; they can all be integrated.”

An operations manager in Houston can monitor ongoing production … for platforms located in the North Sea

Ezat Zarasvand, iStore

One of iStore’s customers, a major oil and gas firm, has a series of business units across the globe. Each unit deals with completely different production and distribution techniques for liquefied natural gas (LNG), deep-water oil and even shale oil and gas. Using bespoke software, the information produced at each field can be accessed in real time, from anywhere in the world on a single platform, from any device.

Integrated systems for safety and efficiency

The use of an integrated system can also radically improve the safety, reliability and efficiency of production where it is used. This is particularly relevant following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the US’ Gulf of Mexico, which was caused by catastrophic failures in communication and planning.

In the same year, research by US consultancy firm International Data Corporation (IDC) forecast a near-doubling of ICT spending among US oil and gas companies, from the $1.3m projected before the disaster to more than $2m.

“It is about people, plants and infrastructure,” says Mansour Belhadj, Middle East sales director at the US’ Honeywell Process Solutions.

“We want to make sure that the plant is performing properly. We work on boundary management, defining low and high limits on a process such as temperatures in process units for example. We want to make the operator feel safe. Gas detection systems should inform the operators and the control room what the situation is in real-time. It allows you to immediately remove personnel from the area if there is any threat. Early detection systems give you protection by detecting defects or problems today, which could cause issues in a day, a week or even a month’s time.”

Currently, Honeywell is working on the $10bn development of the Shah sour gas field in Abu Dhabi. The scheme, being developed by Abu Dhabi Gas Development Company (ADGC), a joint venture of state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the US’ Occidental Petroleum, is one of the most ambitious in the world to produce sulphur-rich gas.

It will span a giant site, 180km south of Abu Dhabi, composed of 22 wells and gas and sulphur processing units.

A purpose-built railway line, sulphur processing units at Habshan and Ruwais and a giant pipeline linking the gas field, with several processing and distribution plants complete the Shah development.

Wireless transmission

The scope of Honeywell’s contract, which it has been working on since June 2010, includes a major network of the latest wireless data transmission systems. The wireless network passes data gathered from monitoring units across the project to a central hub. It is then processed and accessed from a central programme on computers running Microsoft Windows operating systems and bespoke Honeywell software.

The company will also provide handheld computers to allow workers at the field to communicate directly with a central operations room and wireless gas detectors. This will ensure that any leaks are detected instantly and staff can be removed from danger. Honeywell is also training staff in operating the systems being installed through a series of simulations.

“It helps the operators to train their staff on how to operate the plant early on and how changing situations unfold,” says Belhadj. “It is a true reflection of how the plant operates.”

As oil companies move into increasingly challenging environments, wireless data transfer has become more and more important. “It is a game-changer in an environment where there are difficulties laying cable. In Iraq, where there are serious security concerns, we are seeing a move towards satellite technology for example,” says Gamali.

New opportunities in wireless data transfer have opened up. The technology has made it easier and cheaper to monitor what is happening across a complex oil or gas project and for experienced workers in a central control room to react instantly to any issues. “Wireless has definitely brought a lot of improvements to how information is passed to the system and assessed,” says Belhadj.

“The level of information we are getting from the field is far greater than a few years ago. That means we have more control and integration. Today, optimising the process in real-time is nothing fancy – it is an everyday event. We can improve production across the board regardless of the level of on-site knowledge and skills.”

The digital oil field also brings other benefits to oil and gas companies. With key production and distribution data now being processed in real-time, finance departments can work out how much it costs to run a project and how much money is being made from sales.

“An operations manager in Houston can monitor ongoing production, safety reports and key performance indicators for platforms located in the North Sea. It all comes together in near real-time, even though the user and data systems are thousands of miles apart,” Zarasvand says.

Many systems also now allow for real-time video chat and conferences between workers and executives in central offices, on production rigs or sites, speeding up the decision-making process. This is a key money-saver in an industry, where an oil rig used for exploration can cost up to $100,000 a day. However, where the data is not processed properly or there is an overload of different computer systems, the opposite effect can occur.

“Ironically, even as the industry has gone digital, the breadth and depth of data has created information sprawl, requiring many exploration and production (E&P) workers to spend much of their time sorting, finding and managing the data they need to perform geoscience or engineering functions,” Zarasvand says.

Beyond centralised computer systems, increased connectivity has brought collaboration to oil companies, with firms such as Honeywell and iStore being made increasing use of. Today, if an engineer has a problem with a project, he can join a web-based forum or call in company experts to discuss it in real-time or through purpose-built media.

Professional networks for oil firms

Honeywell uses the US networking site LinkedIn to allow different operators to discuss the systems it uses to improve their experience and to encourage others to adopt new technologies.

Experts say that professional networks will become increasingly important to oil companies, particularly for a sector in which the average employee’s age is 50-plus years.

“In the near future many of the petroleum industry’s most knowledgeable E&P workers will retire, leaving behind a vast knowledge gap,” says Zarasvand.

“Even at a time of record demand for hydrocarbons, the industry is facing a labour shortfall. Companies looking to do more with fewer E&P workers should look to technology that improves collaboration and exchange of information within the organisation and across geographical boundaries, including social media and Web 2.0 technology.”

Many operators are also expected to push towards using virtualised systems, a form of cloud computing where a virtual operating network linked to a central processing unit runs operators’ software, reducing the need for upgrades to equipment and programmes.

The technology that will make the industry work even better in the future is already being used.

From wireless computer networks to fourth generation mobile communications systems, oil companies have been quick to recognise the benefits. All that remains is to adapt the technology to the harsh environments that oil and gas companies work in.