Ian Carr explains why reliable radio communications are essential in the remote operating environments of the oil and gas sector.
Nothingness. As far as the eye can see. For the staff working in the oil gas and mining industries, dealing with environmental extremes is par for the course; storm-battered oil rigs and sun-blistered deserts in some of the world's most remote locations are the places of work they sign up to.
In these remote energy outposts, staff depend upon having the right technology and infrastructure in place to be able to do their job, and to provide them with the safety mechanisms and support they need. Central to this is effective communications - it's the linchpin that unites field engineers with an unseen operations centre far over the horizon.
So what factors do you need to consider when looking at when deploying a communications system, and how can you ensure it will stand up to the demands placed on it?
These outposts act as mini self-sufficient villages with their own services and essential infrastructures, such as airports, helipads, rail and sea terminals through to medical facilities, power generation systems, water supply and sewage treatment.
All of these require reliable communications if they are to function effectively, however, the important difference from a normal environment is that no public communications infrastructure exists, meaning a private mobile radio (PMR) network is often the only viable means of supporting these essential operations.
In some larger and more remote locations, satellite may provide the core bearer network, but the cost of this, and more importantly the reliability of the network and line-of-site issues mean that PMR can offer a more flexible and reliable alternative.
Even for sites which have a fixed satellite network in place, PMR technology - such as terrestrial trunked radio (TETRA) - can be added on to give staff more flexible communications - its duplex speech capability enables the extension of public switched telephone network (PSTN) services to portables being used anywhere on site.
Helicopters, planes and ships all need to land or dock at mini airport and seaport terminals, and a key benefit of PMR is that ground-to-air and marine radio communications can be integrated into the PMR system to enable incoming and outgoing flights to liaise with ground staff for more co-ordinated activity.
Protecting valuable assets
In the remote oil and gas environment, staff safety is the number one priority. And although it's perhaps not something we like to dwell upon, there are a number of hazards and threats associated with working on oil rigs or pipelines.
Staff have extremes of weather to contend with, as well as the risk of explosion. Effective health and safety procedures, supported by the right communications infrastructure covering wells, pipeline or the entire plant is therefore vital in being able to coordinate emergency evacuations and site shutdowns.
Man-down technology is also essential, with in-built tilt-switches in radio terminals or microphones raising an alert if an individual remains horizontal.
Integrated into a PMR network, man-down technology not only ensures timely assistance, it can also promote more preventative protection for staff. The Bluetooth functionality on TETRA PMR handsets can be used to identify and monitor the exact location of any worker if they are in need of help, and also if they have entered a hazardous zone - staff can then immediately contact the individual worker via his TETRA handset to alert him to the danger.
The threat of terrorism is another important consideration, and one which no country is immune from.
Combating terror requires an organised and timely response, and so being able to communicate between sites and reach engineers on the ground is essential, wherever they are working.
A wider responsibility is that of the energy companies' duty of care to the environment. In the event of an oil or gas leakage, a rapid and informed response is vital, in order to minimise the impact on the environment, on adjoining wildlife and population centres.
A co-ordinated response in conjunction with the appropriate emergency services teams requires the ability to communicate across multiple locations and to different users and user groups.
Keeping the black gold flowing
Reliable voice and data comms are also essential for the smooth running of all business operations, to ensure vital gas supplies continue to flow through the pipeline.
Avoidable production downtime will have an enevitable and serious economic impact on the always-on operating environment of the oil and gas sector, and so it's important to maintain business-as-usual wherever possible.
A typical oil pipeline pumps more than $3 million of oil every hour, and so any delays in drilling or pumping will lead to serious financial loss. Co-ordinated communication between the company headquarters, site operations and field engineers and the ability to easily send and receive timely voice- and data/based information will help to ensure the smooth running of day-to-day operations, keeping revenues flowing.
The importance of keeping energy supplies flowing and of ensuring the safe running and protection of oil and gas environments requires a dedicated network for emergency-ready communications. And this means PMR.
Private mobile radio is also a more cost-effective alternative than Satellite phone systems, and is not affected by issues such as line-of-site, which can impact upon the reliability of satellite communications.
PMR is also more reliable than commercial GSM mobile networks, which are not suited to the remote operating environments of the industry, and which cannot guarantee the level of service and security demanded in the mission-critical energy sector.
It is for precisely this reason that private mobile radio has been favoured in a number of operating environments, where guaranteed channels of communications are needed for emergency situations, such as within the police, anti-terror and airport security sectors.
The advantage of private mobile radio is that it is a bespoke system, tailored to meet specific communications needs, across a defined geographic area.
This gives oil, gas and mining companies the reassurance that every square inch of the area operated in - from offshore facilities to pipeline infrastructure, and no matter how remote - will have the radio coverage to communicate effectively in any scenario.
No need to call out the engineers
An additional advantage of PMR is that it can be effectively managed remotely, removing the need for any on-site maintenance. Such an approach is particularly valuable in the remote working environment of oil and gas, where sending out a telecoms filed engineer to repair a connection would not only prove logistically difficult, it would also significantly add to the cost of running the radio network. PMR technology has plug-and-play functionality, IP compatibility and software configurable standard components.
By combining the low capital cost and flexibility advantages of analogue PMR with the system management and low cost-of-ownership benefits of IP technology, users can connect to a base station via the web and reconfigure a controller without having to send an engineer out in a dinghy off a rig, or to the wilds of the Russian Steppe.
Running through one of the world's most remote locations, the Kazakhstan-China Pipeline runs from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to Alashanku in Western China, a distance of 1000kms.
To guarantee these reliable, mission-critical communications across the entire distance of the pipeline, Team Simoco was chosen to install its Xfin multisite PMR system, providing enhanced voice and data communications between sites and reliable coverage and guaranteeing secure and resilient communications in the event of any emergency situation.
Health and safety was a key concern in KCP's choice of radio system for their staff working along the pipeline. Xfin technology ensures operators working on the pipeline can communicate effectively and that appropriate action is taken in any emergency situation to maintain staff safety and allow a timely shutdown of the pipeline.
The operational radio system consists of 19 sites each equipped with Xfin base stations. Key staff are equipped with portable radios and vehicle mobiles to enable them to communicate effectively, while working remotely.
Each site has between three and five channels of Xfin technology, and they are linked over an IP network deployed along the entire length of the 1000km pipeline.
Robust and resilient networks
Energy companies need a communications network that is robust and resilient enough to cope with the remoteness of their location and the extreme weather they face, to be able to deal with emergency situations and ensure the health and safety of their staff, as well as ensuring essential business continuity.
Effective communications are essential in any business, but this need is magnified in the oil and gas sector.
Ian Carr is managing director of Team Simoco, Derby, UK. www.teamsimoco.com