The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the main pillars of the framework of Industry 4.0 and capitalises on the internet’s capabilities to connect smart devices so they can collectively generate data and execute functions in the cloud.
However, most current IT and automation systems used in the oil and gas industry rely on a conventional technology architecture and use a kind of ethernet network as their main backbone for connectivity.
An ideal IoT solution will have all sensors connected digitally, each with the required level of intelligence, all connected through the internet.
Central data and processing will be spared for innovative, complex and advanced functions such as using Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and so on.
Due to their criticality, oil and gas systems need to be secure, highly reliable and safe, and will lower failure rates and fast responses. This may call for a certain degree of redundancy.
In an interim IoT phase, where sensors and field devices are either connected directly to the internet or through conventional networks and systems, it is possible to benefit from existing investments while allowing the gradual introduction of IoT in existing sites.
To be fully IoT compliant, future IT and automation solutions will have to be reliable, safe, secure, efficient, fast and affordable.
Potential candidates for the application of IoT solutions in the oil and gas sector include rotating equipment such as compressors, turbines and pumps. As these are an important asset class for any oil and gas plant, it is vital to keep them running safely, efficiently and reliably. To achieve this today, the industry uses machine condition monitoring (MCM) systems to monitor, protect, improve and manage this type of equipment.
Traditional handling of a problem with a piece of equipment, such as a sudden increase in the axial movement of a gas compressor shaft, involves the monitoring by the system of all measurements and signals related to the condition of the compressor. This takes place at both the machine level and at a central level, where there is a server running the main MCM application.
Rotating equipment engineers then use the MCM system to review and analyse the data and diagnose the problem based on their experience and, in some cases, with the use of a simple AI system.
However, when an IoT-based solution is available, all data comes from smart sensors and in a digital form, then the different sensors and systems will interact with one another in real time to find the cause of the abnormal axial movement.
Built-in IoT applications in each sensor, combined with AI capability, will enable the sensors to diagnose the cause, report it and potentially take any remedial action as required.
The way ahead
It is fair to say that IoT still has some way to go before it is widely adopted in the oil and gas industry, which is characterised by its complexity, hazardous nature and the huge revenues involved. Indeed, it is expected that IoT technology will pass through three disctinct phases of adoption.
The first phase, which is already under way, is the exploratory phase. Currently, IoT technology is being explored, studied and researched with a view to potential upgrades and the benefits these could deliver. Control systems vendors are developing IoT applications and IoT-enabled smart sensors while re-architecting their solutions to comply with IoT standards and requirements.
In the current phase of adoption, vendors are also re-orienting their business models from a hardware-dependent revenue model to a solutions and services revenue model.
The next phase of IoT adoption, the interim phase, is likely to commence in two or three years’ time. At that point, the industry – driven by the offerings available from vendors – will begin a partial adoption of the technology through pilot projects.
Traditional systems will continue to be used, however, and will be integrated with new IoT systems.
Ultimately, in approximately five to 10 years’ time, the industry will reach full IoT adoption. The speed at which this happens will be highly dependent on factors such as the pace of academic research and the development of international standards and compliance on the part of vendors.
There will need to be improvements made in the safety, speed, security and reliability of the internet in order for IoT technology to become the norm.
Benefits of IoT
When IoT reaches maturity, it will offer many benefits for the oil and gas sector. These include a simplified systems architecture, faster and more accurate responses to problems and a more cost-effective IT infrastructure. When combined with Big Data and AI, IoT will deliver smarter solutions and the ability to handle very complex situations and problems.
Clients and vendors must prepare for the introduction of IoT with a phased, planned and realistic approach, without sacrificing or delaying the implementation of other, more mature Industry 4.0 technologies.