Video in an Offshore Environment: Fuelling Bandwidth Demands

The increased use of HD video in offshore environments is also hiking up demands for new bandwidth. New opportunities are emerging for satellite companies and service providers as oil companies get creative with video.

In today’s oil and gas industry, offshore platforms, rigs and vessels may be considered remote in terms of distance, but they are seldom out of sight. Offshore video communications have become common practice to help improve several operations from safety to drilling efficiency and monitoring. The search to be more streamlined never stops.

Satellite providers have a large and growing market to target in offshore video communications, but there is strong competition from fiber networks. This could give satellite the edge in such places where fiber infrastructure is either non-existent or some years away from installation, as the industry continues to look for oil in the more remote regions of the world, as well as in deeper waters of the oceans. Competing with fiber means getting access to more bandwidth from existing systems.

Real-time drilling

Oil companies have big budgets for drilling. Video services offer real-time drilling that allows companies to monitor operations as they happen on the drilling floor and subsea. Using video footage of offshore drilling operations is essential for land-based drilling managers to monitor numerous wells from one central location and to look for potential hitches and problems and steer teams on different rigs in the right direction.

The overall decision-making process is also improved thanks to Real-time drilling, making operations more efficient and keeping costs at manageable levels.

“Real-time drilling is our biggest use of video communications. The drilling department has a big budget and they need to spend a lot on this service,” says Don Happel, Shell’s field telecommunications manager.

He adds that drilling rigs use video on the drilling floor and from subsea Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to monitor all underwater operations and equipment from the ocean surface all the way down to the seabed.

Along with exploration drilling, ROVs are sent underwater to look at subsea templates and production equipment to make sure it is all operating well and to assess any potential problems.

Contractor Oceaneering has noticed an increasing demand to place HD cameras on ROVs and use them to observe drilling operations in real-time.

“We know operators like it because it saves them sending people offshore and shares in decision making,” comments Mark Stevens, director of communications and application development.

This is even more important since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as oil companies look to improve safety and increase monitoring of underwater drilling in real-time.

“The use of offshore video was growing before Deepwater Horizon but afterwards it did accelerate the demand,” says Stevens.

Stevens says using archive material is similar to using YouTube for drillers, offering them access to drilling footage from any location at any time to help them decide on the best solution to any problems or questions that arise on a day-to-day basis.

“Video communications makes up a significant amount of our revenue. I think usage will continue to increase because this is a relatively new technology for the offshore industry so it a matter of playing catch-up,” says Stevens.

 

Instrument monitoring

Harris CapRock says there has been a strong increase in the demand for video monitoring of the drilling floor in recent years, which also has risen following the Macondo disaster.

This includes not only the actual drilling process itself, but also a new demand that is emerging in providing video access to instruments, such as pressure gauges.

While this information has been available remotely as raw data for some time, customers are now frequently requesting to have a visual connection to numerous gauges on offshore facilities, comments Keith Johnson, president, Global Energy Solutions at Harris CapRock.

This can be achieved by placing a fixed focus camera on a gauge at all times or a moveable camera that can pan in and out on different gauges in a given area on the drill deck.

“There is much more demand for repetition and storage of data, including video footage,” says Johnson. “In the event of an incident, the operator can draw on the archived data and look to replicate how the event occurred. We are seeing bandwidth demand increasing, depending on the application, by between 10 percent and 30 percent on offshore installations. Remote video streaming is continuing to grow and gain momentum.”

 

Weather surveillance

Video can be a very useful tool in times of severe weather conditions, such as the recent Tropical Storm Isaac in the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf of Mexico).

Shell used HD real-time video to monitor helipads on platforms from its onshore operations and maintenance bases in Houston and New Orleans. That way helicopters do not need to do fly-overs when a storm has passed, as video lets companies know if the helipad is intact, clear of debris and accessible. A reduction in fly-overs means a reduction in both expenses and risk.

When the crew is evacuated from offshore installation, it frees up bandwidth from business applications so that it can be allocated to video communications that monitor equipment, wave patterns, helipads and other essential facilities on the platform, says Happel.

If helipads or other equipment is damaged, then the next outward flight will be able take the correct equipment needed to carry out repairs, thanks to knowledge garnered by video monitoring, which also helps bring systems back to full working order in a shorter timeframe.

Video conferencing

The use of video conferencing between rigs, platforms, vessels and onshore headquarters is growing for oil companies. The average bandwidth usage for an oil rig is around 2MB a second.

“Whereas it used to be a big event to have a video conference from rig to shore, maybe once a week, that has become a daily event now,” says Stevens, adding that the growth in offshore video communications in general has seen his department’s workload increase by approximately 30 percent to 40 percent this year alone. He believes this trend will continue.

Johnson says that video conferencing is well used for offshore video communications and is growing but not as fast as some had anticipated.

“I do not see the same level of growth as the other areas (real-time drilling, subsea monitoring, gauge monitoring). It is on a growth path but not at the same rate as others post-Macondo,” he adds.

 

Ship-to-ship

Oceaneering is seeing an increase in onboard video distribution for ship-to-ship communications in the offshore sector. Combined with an increase of rig-to-shore video, operating the distribution network between offshore facilities and onshore offices can quickly become a full-time job.

Stevens said ship-to-ship work accounts for around 50 percent of his department’s workload at present. In terms of rig-to-rig video communications, Oceaneering offers up to 50 Mbps of high-speed bandwidth.

Personal use

Working offshore can be a tough experience, but access to the Internet, Skype or FaceTime to contact family can make it easier. The rate of growth for personal use via smart phones and tablets has created a massive demand for bandwidth on top of the business uses. Finding spare bandwidth while running numerous business applications can be difficult, so the evenings are often the best time to offer workers bandwidth. Indeed, Shell opens up its network for workers in the evenings when the business traffic is less heavy.

“This wasn’t an issue 20 years ago,” says Happel. “Now, the one constant is the need for increased bandwidth. That never goes down.”

The challenge for oil and gas companies is that providing this can become very costly to give unlimited access, says Johnson. The companies are looking to offer good service but it needs to be well managed to control costs.

Other video services that are used and are increasing to a lesser degree include digital signage, telemedicine, CCTV and telemetry.

 

Boosting the bandwidth

Rising demand from operators for video communications on offshore facilities means that service providers are faced with the challenge of offering much more bandwidth without costs becoming too high for customers.

For instance, the standard bandwidth for an offshore platform of 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps is projected to rise to 20 Mbps. The rising demand for video communications could see certain installations needing up to 100 Mbps in the near future, says Johnson.

Operators have told him that they would be keen on increasing bandwidth considerably beyond the 20 Mbps range if it only required incremental rises in costs.

“Every customer is looking for more cost effective bandwidth so we need to offer bandwidth in new ways. To offer 100 Mbps in the traditional way is a big task so we need to do it more efficiently,” adds Johnson.

 

The Digital Field

One means of achieving increased efficiency while containing costs is to invest in creating the future rig, which has often been called the “Digital Field’.

Many have spoken of what the future rig will be like and some believe it is by merging all the IP devices on a remote facility that the digital field will be truly created. In essence, every single gauge and transmitter is an individual IP device and all the instruments on a rig could be supplied and monitored by five or six different companies.

Johnson suggests that using a completely merged service for reading all the gauges and devices to provide a single report on all of the rig’s digital output could be the means of offering increased efficiency and higher bandwidth for less than a king’s ransom.

Johnson says that Harris CapRock is close to offering such a fully merged service in the next three to six months.

Infrared cameras that can pan, zoom and tilt to monitor anything approaching the facility from sea during the night also provides oil rigs with a sound, state-of-the-art security measure.

“Security is an application that is ideal for video footage that can be sent back to the operation and maintenance centre in New Orleans,” says Happel.

 

Fiber competition

“At present, we use satellite when we need to, but the costs are high,” says Happel, giving an example of storms that frequently hit the Gulf of Mexico. In 2005, Katrina took out the microwave networks in the area and the destroyed systems took between six and 12 months to fully restore. This meant Shell had to use a Ka-band satellite option to get the bandwidth it needed for operations.

Happel says the Ka-band did the job, but suffered at times from rain attenuation. Shell then used C-band, which was less susceptible to rain attenuation and better suited to work in conjunction with microwave systems.

Shell’s C-band use was 4 Mbps down to the platform and 2 Mbps back to shore, which could rise to 10 Mbps to the platform and 10 Mbps back to shore. Shell’s minimum needs are 4 Mbps to enable it meet its needs for voice and other business applications.

However, there is strong competition from fiber optic cables in the Gulf of Mexico. When Shell starts production from its Olympus tension leg platform (TLP) in late 2013 or early 2014 the company will tie-into BP’s existing fiber network for its bandwidth needs.

The cost to get Shell’s network working through BP’s infrastructure is approximately $40 million, but development managers saw that price as acceptable to have a complete system running smoothly when the Olympus project has a total price tag of some $2 billion.

The Olympus TLP will have a 10 Mbps tie-in to shore and a loop extending from the coast of Texas to the coast of Mississippi and out to Shell’s deep-water exploration and production areas.

Happel says that if Olympus proves a hit then more fiber optic solutions could be used in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly seeing Shell installing its own fiber network over the next five to 10 years.

BP is already using fiber widely and the U.K. major is also looking to follow the same strategy elsewhere in the world.

“We do use video to add value as part of our overall communications packages when required, but operational data is the key with a bias for fiber. We’ve laid 2,000km of fiber optic cable across parts of the North Sea and elsewhere to link and even operate some fields from onshore. Other areas will move to fiber rather than satellite in coming years,” says Robert Wine, BP’s press officer in London.

 

Other Opportunities

The competition in the Gulf of Mexico from fiber optic cable networks puts pressure on satellite providers to keep providing more bandwidth from their own systems and maintain a tight control on costs for customers.

If the Gulf of Mexico does become a more fiber-cabled area, then there are plenty of other opportunities around the world to provide satellite offshore video communications, especially in the deepwater plays such as those offshore West Africa and Brazil, as well as other areas such as South East Asia and Australia.

A truly remote emerging offshore sector is the Arctic regions offshore Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland.

The Arctic areas are forecast to hold significant oil and gas reserves and have little or no infrastructure for exploration or production activity. Norway’s Statoil recently unveiled plans to step up its Arctic activities and will drill nine wells during a non-stop 2013 Norwegian Barents Sea exploration campaign. It also plans a drilling campaign offshore Alaska no later than 2015.

Satellite could provide real-time drilling solutions in such remote offshore plays, as well as video monitoring of equipment and gauges, safety video footage and security applications.

The oil and gas industry is constantly inventing technology to allow it to access regions of the world that it could not reach 10 years ago and satellite bandwidth services could help to keep these new plays connected to headquarters.

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