Wireless technology for asset utilisation and operator profitability

August 17th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT


Wireless communications are well-suited for the oil and gas industry, especially given the often remote locations of production facilities, both on- and offshore. In the past, satellites provided producers with high-latency, low-bandwidth communications sufficient for transmitting telemetry data. But they fell short for system automation controls that required much less latency or for fixed and mobile multi-services like voice and video that require much more bandwidth.

Fortunately, today’s three terrestrial wireless technologies – WiMAX, WiFi/WLAN and 3G cellular – can meet those requirements with high levels of security. This article describes these technologies and how the oil and gas industry can best deploy them to help reduce labour costs, while offering much greater operating visibility, control and efficiency – all of which can contribute to greater profitability.

Table 1. Feature comparisons of WiMAX, WiFi/WLAN and 3G wireless technologies.

Table 1. Feature comparisons of WiMAX, WiFi/WLAN and 3G wireless technologies.

 Oil and gas production – ideal for wireless communications

Few industries in the world are as opportune for deploying today’s advanced wireless communications as oil and gas production. With drilling operations and wellheads in some of our planet’s most remote locations – and the latter mostly unmanned these days – producers need secure, cost-effective ways to monitor and control their operations from afar. This is especially true if they want to keep costs from rising faster than revenues.

Wireless communications have a wide range of applications for the oil and gas industry, both on- and offshore. Among them are:

  • Multiservice alternatives to high-latency satellite communications.
  • Wireless connection of mobile applications.
  • Wellhead monitoring and control.
  • Gas field control and monitoring.
  • Rig power management and monitoring.
  • Rig internal communications.
  • Pipeline telemetry.
  • Data aggregation in rugged environments.
  • Process analytics.

This article aims to provide readers with an overview of the unique wireless requirements of the oil and gas industry and the three major categories of terrestrial wireless technologies that can be combined through good design and engineering for highly secure, reliable and cost-effective communications systems. These systems can help reduce labour costs substantially, while offering much greater operating visibility, control and efficiency – all of which can contribute to greater profitability.

Unique wireless requirements of the oil and gas industry

Wireless communications are in fact already connecting remote oil and gas production facilities around the world, while enabling greater operational visibility, control and efficiency. One offshore wireless network using the RuggedCom Win wireless broadband technology spans thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico and has been operating since 2011.

With more than 120 base stations, the network provides multiple services, including supervisory control (SCADA) telemetry, voice and video, not only from platforms-to-platforms and platforms-to-shore but also for approaching and departing supply vessels servicing those platforms. Compared to satellite communications, it does so with much more bandwidth and much less latency and cost.


Fig. 1: Oil and gas production – ideal for wireless communications.

Fig. 1: Oil and gas production – ideal for wireless communications.

Beyond remote connectivity

In deploying wireless technology, however, care must be taken to address the industry’s special requirements that go beyond remote connectivity. Obviously home and office wireless network technologies fall far short of those needs, but so would most high-performance industrial wireless networks, too. Hazardous operating conditions and rugged environments, such as extreme temperatures, corrosive saltwater, constant vibration and penetrating dust and dirt, are just some examples.

Another big requirement is cyber security, given that oil and gas industry networks are by far the most targetted by industrial hackers, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. Of the top 16 industrial sectors it has designated as critical to national interests [1], cyber attacks on energy in 2013 were 59% of all attacks deemed serious enough for its Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) to investigate [2].

That was three times the number of attacks on critical manufacturing facilities, the runner-up, and 30 times the number of attacks on government facilities.

Finally, remote and often unmanned facilities require that high-performance wireless communication infrastructures not only be rugged and secure, but also highly reliable – carrier-grade, that is – and simplified, to ease the engineering and maintenance burden on the producers’ enterprise IT and operating engineering teams.

Offshore wireless networks, for example, can cover thousands of square miles, especially at sea, as the previous Siemens deployment example in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates. Troubleshooting and replacing a failed component over such a wide area can be extremely expensive. Meanwhile, a communications breakdown can disrupt operations and, worse, imperil operational safety, with grave and costly potential consequences to human life and the environment.

Fig. 2: Wimax goes the distance.

Fig. 2: Wimax goes the distance.

Out of the sky: three categories of terrestrial wireless technologies

Before the past decade’s advancements of terrestrial wireless technologies made them practical for use in the oil and gas industry, geostationary satellite communications (also known as fixed satellite service, or FSS) was used mostly for remote SCADA telemetry. Then more bandwidth became available using very small aperture terminal (VSAT) – technology similar to what satellite TV uses, providing wide-area coverage for maritime and land-based remote communications needs. Voice communications largely used ship-to-shore radio telephones operating on shortwave frequencies.

While FSS data rates, typically from 4 kbps to 4 Mbps, may be sufficient for SCADA telemetry and batch data feeds, they are inadequate for real-time voice, video and control communications. The main reason is latency, which is a delay caused by simple physics: it takes about a half-second for a signal to make a round trip from Earth to a satellite more than 35 000 km in the sky.

Another problem with FFS communications is heavy rain, which can block signals for the duration of a torrential downpour, as anyone with a home satellite TV will attest.

Finally, there’s a cost issue. After setting up an FSS/VSAT infrastructure, operators must subscribe to an ongoing service. To be sure, FSS price-performance has greatly improved in recent years, and new VSAT systems have come online using Ka band technology that promises higher data rates for lower costs. However, for the most cost-effective, real-time communication, terrestrial wireless technologies are the way to go.

WiMAX, WiFi and 3G

Since their respective debuts, these technologies have continued to steadily advance their capabilities, lower their component costs and simplify network engineering and management. The following table summarises their bandwidth, reach and the international standards upon which they are based.

4G/LTE cellular is not included in the chart because it is usually not available in the remote areas where oil and gas deployments typically require wireless technologies.

Note also that an inverse relation exists between bandwidth data rates and reach. In addition, longer distances require greater power for the components to generate signals strong enough to reach their destinations – which could be a receiver, to bring the signal to an end-user (or a monitoring/control system) or a repeater, to relay the signal further.

WiMAX goes the distance

Because of its long reach, WiMAX is the technology of choice for interconnecting remote offshore drilling and well-head platforms and their onshore counterparts that may be dispersed over long distances. The RuggedCom line of WiMAX products earned its name by setting the standard for mission-critical communications networks deployed in harsh environments for many industries worldwide. Among those are electric utilities, transportation systems, automation, and defence networks.

Although this product family comprises 14 hardware lines and two software solutions, its 4G broadband private radio base stations and subscriber units are the principal components for an advanced wireless solution based on the IEEE 802.16 WiMAX standard. Together these ultra-compact, solid-state devices can provide high-quality, multiservice wireless broadband communications – voice, video, and SCADA control and monitoring data – for fixed facilities. They can also do the same for delivering nomadic broadband communications to moving vehicles and vessels at sea. Latency rates are as low as 25 ms, a thousand times less than FSS communications.

Global spectrum flexibility

These units can operate in nine unlicensed, licensed and so-called lightly licensed (3,65 GHz) frequency bands, for deployment flexibility all over the world. In North America, the 3,65 GHz band and unlicensed 5 GHz band are most often used because they are readily available via FCC rules and avoid radio interference with other devices and technologies, such as FCC-licensed microwave and WiFi and Bluetooth short-range radios that use the 2,4 GHz band.

In several countries and in offshore deployments, carrier-grade frequency bands can be used for WiMax deployments. Spectrum rules vary by country and should be researched for the particular geographic area as part of an initial system design process.

Extreme durability

The base stations and subscriber units are not standardised models that have been “hardened” with added environmental protections. To be clear, they are designed and engineered from the start for ultra-reliable performance in a wide range of hazardous and extreme environmental conditions. In short, ruggedness is a core design that’s built-in and not  added-on.

These units comply with ANSI/NFPA Class I, Division 2 standards to prevent explosions, given their potential use in areas of flammable hydrocarbon gases, vapours or liquids. They can operate in extended temperature ranges from as high as 75°C to as low as -40°C temperatures that fall well within the range of even equatorial extremes. Last, they are IEC IP67-rated against intrusion by dust and blasts of  corrosive saltwater.

Enhanced security

With hackers targetting the energy sector far more than any other industry, several layers of “defence-in-depth” security are critically important, as recommended by all cyber security professionals. That’s why all wireless communications via these WiMAX 4G base stations and subscriber units are encrypted via the 128-bit advanced encryption standard (AES) adopted by the US government and used worldwide.

In addition, these devices also comply with the critical infrastructure protection (CIP) cyber security standards set forth by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).

Next, they feature remote authentication dial In user service (RADIUS), a networking protocol that centralises authentication, authorisation, and accounting (AAA) management for all users connecting with this WiMAX network. The devices’ event-logging takes this authentication a step further by enabling forensic reviews of network access and use.

Fig. 3: Global spectrum flexibility.

Fig. 3: Global spectrum flexibility.

Network simplicity

Wireless networks used in the mostly remote, harsh operating conditions of the oil and gas industry not only need to be flexible, durable and secure, but they must also be extremely reliable. Although RuggedCom’s centralised network management system can help troubleshoot and localise any component problems, sending a technician out to repair or replace parts can be extremely expensive, not to mention the disruptive potential of a communications system breakdown.

The key to this requirement is simplicity, via solid-state components (i.e. no moving parts to fail) and straightforward engineering. For example, base stations and subscriber units are engineered to eliminate the need for a $250 000 access service network (ASN) gateway and to use power-over-Ethernet (PoE), to simplify cabling. Also, each unit can operate in standalone mode, so scaling is simple – just add subscriber units, either as repeaters or receivers. With its Layer 2 feature set, the units effectively create a “CAT 5 network in the air.” Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) helps provide reliable, multiservice connections, especially in spite of the radio-reflective properties of open water.

WiFi/WLAN for the short haul  While WiMAX solutions with ranges up to  25 km are sometimes called “next-to-last-mile” deployment options, WiFi/ WLAN (wireless LAN) technologies are truly “last mile,” with transmission ranges of up to  1,5 km. Another difference is WiFi/WLAN’s much larger data rates of up to 450 Mbps, almost ten times that of WiMAX. This reflects the inverse correlation between distance and data rates.

The higher data rates can enable a wide variety of localised short-range oil and gas industry applications. WiMAX can interconnect with these applications to provide operators full, long-range visibility in real-time. Here are just a few examples from thousands of WiFi/WLAN deployments among Siemens oil and gas customers worldwide:

  • Slip-ring alternative for offshore platform-to-crane.
  • Well-head monitoring and control, land-based or offshore.
  • Redundant wireless drilling rig communications in case a wired network cable breaks.
  • Secure, real-time communications between a land-rig driller controls cabin and E-houses (generator rooms, mud motor houses and shipping compartments).
Fig. 4: WiFi/WLAN for the short haul.

Fig. 4: WiFi/WLAN for the short haul.

3G cellular to fill the gaps

One of the big benefits of WiMAX and WiFi/WLAN networks is their low operating costs. Aside from whatever cost accounting is done for their initial capital, engineering, installation and commissioning outlays, their ruggedised, solid-state components consume little power, need virtually no maintenance and rarely fail. With cellular wireless communications, much the same holds true except that, similar to satellite communications, an oil and gas operator must pay ongoing subscriber fees for access to cellular network services.

Nonetheless, sometimes cellular service is required to bridge gaps that neither WiMAX, WiFi/WLAN nor a combination of the two can. The gaps may be the result of geography, especially line-of-sight topography issues, or because an oil and gas project’s requirements may not cost-justify a longer-term WiMAX and/or WiFi/WLAN wireless solution.

Security from point-of-use to the cellular network is provided with an on-board firewall and VPN using the internet protocol security (IPsec) protocol suite that authenticates and encrypts each IP packet in a communications session. The devices also use network address translation (NAT) to hide IP addressing from hackers.

Although unconventional extraction technologies have created a boom in today’s oil and gas industry, especially in North America, maximising asset utilisation and profitability remain foremost imperatives for all operators – upstream, midstream and downstream. Industrial wireless technologies – specialised for the industry’s demanding requirements – can help ensure greater utilisation and profitability by providing more operating visibility, control and efficiency.


[1]  www.dhs.gov/critical-infrastructure-sectors
[2]  ICS-CERT_Monitor_Oct-Dec2013.pdf, available at ics-cert.us-cert.gov

Contact Jennifer Naidoo,  Siemens, Tel 011 652-2795,  jennifer.naidoo@siemens.com

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