Black Gold

Saudi Aramco is the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia. It also happens to be the world’s largest oil company, both in terms of proven crude oil reserves and production. Saudi Aramco produces and exports an average of eight million barrels of crude oil every day—more than twice the output of the next highest producer (Iraq) and nearly five times more than the largest U.S. oil company. With global demand for oil at an all-time high and production booming, Saudi Aramco (once half-owned by American investors) has a deeply vested interest in protecting its equipment and its assets.

In recent years, however, insurance companies have demanded more real-time data from rigs and refineries than was possible with existing technology. In order to keep up their insurance policies, oil companies, including Saudi Aramco, have turned to Wi-Fi.

“These oil rigs around the world have varying degrees of technology,” says Jim Freeze, SVP of Marketing & Alliances for BelAir Networks, which is handling the Saudi Aramco deployments. “Saudi Aramco wanted to take advantage of broadband technology to run a whole host of new applications.”

To date, BelAir has deployed WLANs at four Saudi Aramco refineries. Among the uses to which the network is being put: real-time location systems (RTLS), safety, emergency management, and security.

“These are large rigs,” says Freeze. “If you have vehicles or other equipment, you want to be able to locate them. Wi-Fi sensors allow that. Security is also an increasingly important issue. We enable video surveillance and remote monitoring. Wireless sensors also allow for real-time data on temperature, humidity, pressure, and other things that are very important. With VoWi-Fi, we can also provide emergency voice services when other forms are down.”

Before the installation of wireless networks on the rigs and at refineries, necessary measurements were taken by hand, causing an unacceptable delay in the processing of the data.

“What used to be done is that people would wander around and they’d keep track of different readings–temperature, humidity, pressure, flow control (to see if the oil is moving at the rate it should be moving). They’d record those, come back to the office and register them, and then send them off to the insurance company, so the insurance company would know the rig was being being monitored as it was supposed to. Over time, the contracts became more onerous. Insurers wanted real-time updates,” says Freeze.

Because of the volatile nature of oil and gas rigs and refineries, special precautions need to be taken when deploying equipment.

“One of the first applications to roll out is to take ‘intrinsically safe’ PDAs—this means they won’t spark or cause a fire—you take these devices and you are able to do real-time updates of metrics, like flow control, temperature, and pressure. You can time stamp them in real-time and transmit them via Wi-Fi. They can also have GPS built-in, so that you can do a physical latitude and longitude, so the insurers even know where they were and what they monitored in real-time.”

Another challenge facing companies deploying at refineries are the extreme weather conditions, ranging from the icy cold, wind, and snow of arctic locations, to the intense heat, arid conditions, and flying sand in desert locales, to the uniquely intense climatic experience of off-shore rigs.

“Our equipment is certified to operate in harsh conditions,” says Freeze. “From a temperature perspective, we operate in very harsh, very humid, and very dry. We can work in desert environments with blowing sand. We’ve gone through all of that certification. We put our equipment in an oven and heat it up and then drop it in ice cold water, and see how it responds. This is carrier-grade equipment that operates in those environments–in Canada or the Middle East.”

In addition to having access to massive amounts of oil, one other resource the Saudis have in bountiful amounts is the sun. However, Freeze says it doesn’t yet make sense to power the Wi-Fi networks with solar.

“Some customers have asked us to look for solar solutions, but the size of the solar panels required to provide enough power to the devices—to date, there aren’t practical solutions.”

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.

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