When GCI Telecom, a firm that provides networks for big oil and gas companies, needed to find a way to supply long-range wireless communications on a remote patch of Alaska's frigid, isolated North Slope, they skipped the standard RFPs, and went for a more practical evaluation.
"They bought eight different products from eight different radio vendors," recalls Duval Yeager, associate vice-president of Redline Communications, whose equipment was among those being evaluated. Redline's long-range radios extend wireless computer networks deep into areas where there's no ordinary cell service. "They installed them in the summer and said, we'll talk to you in the winter."
GCI placed the radios where they can be tremendously difficult to reach overland and temperatures can reach -40C in winter. Eight months later, the Markham, Ontario-based Redline got a call: Theirs were the only products to survive the winter intact, which meant they'd won the contract. "That was quite a few years ago. They're still functioning very well," says Yeager.
Machine-to-machine connectivity over huge distances has quickly become a mainstay in the oil and gas sector. When facilities are spread out over thousands of kilometres, sensors on pipelines and wellheads reliably check in with company networks, increasing safety and cutting down on in-person site visits to remote locations. And such forms of automation may even bridge the kinds of knowledge gaps that will emerge as older workers retire, taking manual expertise with them.
It's a booming market: A report from the Swedish telecom-research firm Berg Insight says that already 423,000 devices are connected to M2M networks in the oil and gas industry, and that number is expected to nearly triple in the next four years. Of those, almost three-quarters are expected to connect via cellular networks; the rest by more expensive satellite connections. Calgary, in particular, is a hotspot for advances in the field, with companies like Pason Systems and Zedi offering instrumentation and analytics that collect data from well sites.
The industry uses remote sensors for basics such as monitoring temperature, flow rate or viscosity, but increasingly it's using them for more demanding applications, where wireless connectivity is an integral part of the whole operation, including continuously monitoring and ordering fuel in generator tanks, monitoring compressors and frack-tank fills and recovery. Networks are keeping tabs on the heavy equipment driven around work sites, as well as tools, which can be tagged and tracked, and even workers themselves, who can be automatically monitored and kept in touch with the office when in the field alone.
In the past some firms have operated informal, unlicensed wireless networks, but these informal systems risked interfering with others. A more formal, M2M wireless system does away with this problem.
And increasingly, the low-bandwidth, occasional contact that's typical of M2M networks is being supplanted by more intensive applications. Operations such as fracking, and new techniques that are extracting hard-to-reach oil from wells previously thought to be depleted, don't just require monitoring, but active, low-latency, two-way control. "When you talk about fracking, you talk about micro-explosions beneath the Earth," says Yeager. "These things need to be monitored in real time. We need to know now—not milliseconds later."
Other applications are demanding in different ways. Osprey Informatics, a Calgary-based firm, is deploying a visual monitoring system that pulls together video surveillance feeds from remote sites, no matter how many of them there are or how far apart they are, and runs image-recognition analytics on them. These analytics suss out abnormalities that might be a safety concern, and patterns that might be of economic value, or tracking the sites that have a lot of contractor visits.
Significantly, Osprey's cameras connect to the Internet directly through cellular networks, and don't need to be integrated with the client's IT systems at all, combining the benefits of the M2M and software-as-a-service models. "Oil and gas companies aren't interested in becoming experts in operating cameras. We provide the full service," says Michael von Hauff, Osprey's CEO.
Site challenges such as extreme temperatures and isolation may be the greater challenges the oil and gas industry faces, but adopting new tech isn't one of them. "People repeat this idea that oil and gas companies are slow to adopt technologies," say von Hauff. "It's really just not true. They're going to adopt technologies that hit pain points."