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Sensors everywhere, but can you make decisions?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The oil and gas industry is massively increasing the number of sensors and instrumentation - but will it be able to manage the data well enough to make good decisions with it? By Jim Crompton and Dutch Holland

Studying rainforests isn't easy, as data collection often involves climbing trees carrying cumbersome instruments.

But that is changing in Costa Rica's Le Selva rainforest. With $646,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Organization for Tropical Studies recently installed a cluster of towers and a canopy walkway over several acres of the rainforest to facilitate access.

After 10,000 man-hours of tower assembly and cable trenching for power and fibre optics, sensor networks, including digital cameras, were installed in spring 2010.

In addition to transmitting rainforest data to the stations servers, the infrastructure will turn La Selva into a virtual classroom where professors conduct live lectures from the canopy, which are sent over the internet to students.

Oil and gas sensors

Similarly, the infrastructure for oil and gas digital engineering starts with a foundation of sensors, gauges, smart instruments and equipment and process control networks.

Sensors can cost $0.05 for arrays to $200 for high compute/multi-communications devices. You can have server-like processing capabilities at the edge of these sensor networks and ubiquitous tiers of wireless connectivity, all at acceptable costs.

Micro Electro Mechanical systems (MEMs) and Nano Electro Mechanical systems (NEMs) have shrunk the size and increased the capabilities of sensors while making them mass producible and cheap. Ink jet printer heads were the world's first MEMs device. Now complex chemical laboratories can be placed on a chip.

Wireless Sensing enables practical integration of large sets of sensors. This area has become commercial in the last four years. Much research is still to be done to address large groupings of networked sensors to address new solutions within this infrastructure.

Fiber Optic Sensing (FOS) is a powerful emerging technology that can address extreme remoteness as exists on the seabed and deep inside reservoirs. In the last year Chevron has become a leader in exploring distributed acoustic sensing (DAS).

Passive Acoustic Sensing / Imaging is a powerful emerging application technology that can be based on sensing from the DAS and wireless categories above. The significant goal with this technology is to be able to look inside of running processes and create new operational tool sets.

In the 1990's, a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, Kris Pister, dreamed up a wild future in which people would sprinkle the Earth with countless tiny sensors, no larger than grains of rice.

These 'smart dust' particles would monitor everything, acting like electronic nerve endings for the planet. Fitted with computing power, sensing equipment, wireless radios and long life batteries, the smart dust would make observations and relay real-time data about people, cities and the natural environment.

Is this science fiction? HP recently announced that it is working on a project called the 'Central Nervous System for the Earth.' In the coming years, the company plans to deploy a trillion sensors all over the planet. The wireless devices (about the size of a matchbox) would check if ecosystems are healthy, detect earthquakes more rapidly, predict traffic patterns and monitor energy use. The idea is that accidents could be prevented and energy could be saved if people knew more about the world in real time.

HP took the first step towards this goal when it announced plans to work with Shell to install one million monitors to aid in oil exploration measuring rock vibrations (seismic survey) over a six square mile survey area.

Getting to decisions

To get value from this digital perspective of what is going on in the oil field you need a Digital Engineering work process transformation, performed by the new generation of Digital Engineers, with their discipline expertise and their high information technology literacy.

The competitive advantage will not come from finding ways to change your business processes to create more value from existing assets and get a higher return from your people, process and technology investments.

But if today's upstream organizations cannot swallow today's small bites of digital oilfield technology, they won't get a shot at the big bites of the future.

The future may sound like a new world, but it an extension of the today's world of the digital oilfield. That wonderful technology world of tomorrow already has the legacy and a track record of today.

The current world signals that we do not yet have a foundation for break-through uses of digital technology.

Over-reach in promoting digital potential is drastically slowing the rate of usage of digital technology. In some cases, overreach promises the absurd - increases in operating results (or even stock prices, thereby discrediting digital energy initiatives.

The foundation needed to exploit future digital potential is organizational structures and processes that facilitate the successful deployment of today's and tomorrow's digital potential.

Implementation of the digital oilfield will continue to be impaired until we learn basic lessons: it's all about making business process better and enabling them with digital technology.

About the authors: Dutch Holland, PhD and Jim Crompton, MS GEOPH, MBA have just published their first book together. The book is available on The Future Belongs to the Digital Engineer (December 2013).

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