Above and beyond: the return of satellite communications25 November 2015
For decades, satellites have been a crucial tool in the coordination of offshore oil and gas operations. Now, as the prices of those commodities remain at record lows, the capabilities and applications afforded by space-based communications means this area is undergoing a renaissance. Greg Noone talks to Aarti Holla-Maini, secretary-general of the European Satellite Operators Association, about how the sector is using satellite telecommunications to optimise processes and drive down costs.
Life on an oil rig is necessarily lonely. Standing atop its steel boardwalks hundreds of miles from shore, there's rarely anything of note to see between the choppy ocean waters and the flat horizon. There's only the work and, after that, a few distractions to keep one occupied in the hours following.
'Distractions' is something of an understatement. On some of the more established offshore rigs, space is found for anything from private cinemas, gyms, television rooms and, on select North Sea platforms, saunas. Yet, only since the mid-2000s have personnel begun to enjoy the benefits of a consistent internet connection and, more recently, broadband. Although all of these mod cons can only sustain the sense of a home away from home up to a point, the gulf between the steel dormitories in the bowels of the rig and the comforts of civilisation has been bridged a little more by the light of a laptop computer.
For the most part, this has been made possible by the oil and gas industry enthusiastically embracing satellite telecommunications, and its transformative effect has not been solely confined to crew welfare. In fact, satellites have become the eyes, ears and nervous system of a sector that largely stands apart from national phone and broadband grids. As long as they have the hardware to match, companies can now easily accomplish the remote monitoring of staff, equipment and well efficiency from bases located onshore.
Space is the place
The basic challenges in terms of the specifications and implementations of successful satellite communications systems for the energy sector persist, however - as secretary-general of the European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) Aarti Holla-Maini is well aware. While the ESOA does not engage directly with the oil and gas industries, Holla-Maini's role in raising awareness around the value of satellite communications for data connectivity, back-up and resilience has made her privy to the communications demands of offshore operators. "Above all, the industry requires reliable systems that provide a constant service for their voice, video and data applications," she says. "That means incorporating a degree of scalability to support the acquisition of new data and applications every year, as well as surge capacity to ease the impact of spikes in usage."
"Any satellite communications capacity also has to be able to be moved from one drilling location to the next," she adds, and this is something that is especially true for offshore exploration platforms that cannot afford to be rooted in one location for any longer than is necessary. Full incorporation of these features, however, offers ample reward for oil and gas companies for the sheer range in which their rigs and platforms can sustain a strong communications link with the outside world.
"The smartest operators are out in front of policymakers who want to reduce the risk of workplace injury or environmental mishaps," Holla- Maini says. "Norway, for example, is recommending that all companies planning new offshore oil and gas developments first consider robust network infrastructure that can be monitored on land. This entails the creation of advanced command centres that allow aspects of rig operations to proceed with minimal direct human intervention."
The increasing reliance of the oil and gas sector on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) centres onshore to coordinate operations of rig networks is rapidly becoming the new normal for companies in the North Sea, the Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. The establishment of such a network allows everything from telemedicine regimes for isolated platforms to monitoring the integrity of offshore field resources and, although a few major oil companies have explored the possibility of connecting static rig networks through fibre-optic cables, satellites remain a useful tool in keeping the lines of communication to the outside world open.
Conversely, new monitoring technology integrated into drilling equipment and other aspects of the rig allows companies to amass crucial information on the reliability of their wells in real time. "All industries are in 'data harvest' mode," says Holla-Maini, "and in a sector in which field data was, not that long ago, either kept on clipboards or Excel spreadsheets, such shared information is a bonanza."
Rediscovering the satellites
For the better part of two decades, the oil and gas sector has reaped the benefits of satellite telecommunications technology; yet it is only now, as the price of crude oil settles quietly below the $50-a-barrel mark, that the largest energy companies have fully woken up to the cost benefit of an increased reliance on space-based communications networks. With the costs of recruitment, asset maintenance and exploration continuing to rise, and major extraction projects being shelved the world over, the proven ability of satellite telecommunications to enhance the autonomy of drilling platforms has become an even more beguiling proposition for the sector.
"It's really forcing both industries to rethink what they can do with smart technology to drive the traditional costs as far down as they can go," says Holla-Maini. "Satellite communications providers are offering drillers, operators and oilfield services companies more efficient capacity solutions. Combined with more flexible communications plans, they are now in a better position to deploy advanced technologies to increase service availability."
This is evidenced by the fact that satellite telecommunications companies' profits remain buoyed by their business with clients in the energy sector, despite the general collapse in the price of crude. Analysis by consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan found that the total market spend last year for satellite communications services topped $357.2 million and is predicted to reach $459.9 million by 2020.
While this is somewhat of a retreat from earlier predictions that revenues accrued from applications in the oil and gas sector were to reach £1 billion by the end of that period, it nonetheless shows that the industry is deadly serious in moving towards more autonomous, digitised operations facilitated by satellite technology.
This growth is being enabled not only by increasingly efficient transponders and greater bandwidth capacity, but also the evolution in the capabilities of the satellites themselves. Units range from those that can guarantee internet access to isolated rigs to analysing the fullness of oil tanks in storage facilities and studying the subtleties of a potential extraction site, to better know when and where to drill.
Launch costs have also plummeted: a few decades ago, the price of putting a satellite into geostationary orbit was guaranteed to be in the millions - now, it is often only in the thousands.
However, complexity - and in some cases, outright confusion - have accompanied the increasing diversity of satellite capabilities. "Today, we see some satellite communications providers stitching regional networks together using multiple technologies," Holla-Maini says. "These networks suffer in terms of ubiquitous coverage, as well as in mobility across regions, consistent global service offerings, flexibility and scalability." This can lead to a patchwork quilt of networks that is hard to navigate and difficult to manage.
In the meantime, the industry's vulnerability to cyberattack has increased. In 2012, hackers infiltrated Saudi Aramco's systems, wiping or degrading files on around 35,000 computers to significantly disrupt basic supply lines and internal communications.
In August 2013, two 'white hat' hackers from energy cybersecurity firm Cimation demonstrated that it was possible to manipulate outdated network software in place at a SCADA centre and convince the monitoring system that an oil pump that was overflowing was, in fact, empty. The following year, cybercriminals attempted to steal intellectual property information from computers belonging to approximately 300 oil firms in Norway.
Without adequate cybersecurity procedures, the advantages of full interconnectivity between assets over and above decentralised networks, or even air-gapping crucial systems, is lost. It is a dilemma that satellite telecommunications has a potential role in solving.
"In fact, these technologies, as well as private IP networking, deter access to networks by cybercriminals," says Holla-Maini. "Routine end-to-end encryption secures proprietary application, acting as a further deterrent. The Global VSAT Forum Cyber-Security Task Force has provided specifications developed by security experts and representatives from across the industry for service providers."
It is difficult not to imagine some degree of uniformity in the installation of internal data networks and supporting satellite telecommunication technology being reached over time. Moreover, as oil and gas exploration continues to move into more inaccessible areas of the globe, reliance on satellite telecommunications is almost guaranteed to increase - and in that sense, the sector will continue to be the vanguard of the oil and gas industry's communications systems.