Noble Drilling Services: Satellite Provides Communications Pipelines

Keeping a global company’s information technology infrastructure efficient, up to date and secure while adhering to a fixed budget is a constant struggle. Simply maintaining the status quo is not enough. Pause for a deep breath and the competition passes you by technologically. Such is the daily world that information technology professionals live in, juggling day-to-day operations with the search for cutting-edge technology that will increase efficiency and profits.

Technology has become so pervasive in our lives that we sometimes forget there are still plenty of places in this world that do not have phone service of any kind, let alone Internet access. These regions often lack running water, reliable electrical power and refrigeration as well, yet these are the regions of the world energy companies must explore in their quest for new supplies of hydrocarbon fuels. As difficult as these desolate locations may be, there is one place where the hunt for oil is even more difficult: offshore.
Noble Drilling Services Inc., a unit of 85-year-old Noble Corp. of Sugar Land, Texas, provides drilling services to energy companies around the globe. Drilling technology has advanced light years throughout the last century. Gone are the oily-rag guys pushing levers and turning valves to drill a well. Instead, drillers — called tool pushers in the industry — do their work from ergonomically-engineered drilling chairs outfitted with sophisticated computer monitoring equipment. Noble’s fleet of 63 offshore drilling rigs includes 44 jack-up, 13 semi-submersible, and three submersible units as well as three drillships. The company also is scheduled to add three enhanced jackups by 2009.

Offshore drilling has made huge strides from the first attempts to drill oil wells while afloat. Jack-up rigs are designed around a floating hull equipped with three legs. The legs are ratcheted downward to the ocean floor, ultimately raising the hull to a safe distance above the sea. When it is time for the rig to move, the legs are raised and the hull is towed by an ocean-going tug to its new location. Jack-up rigs can drill in water up to 400 hundred feet in depth. However, many of the oil-producing fields in the shallow Gulf of Mexico have been depleted, and exploration has pushed to the edge of the continental shelf, where water depth is measured in miles. This is the domain of semi-submersibles and drillships. Many deep-water rigs are held in place with the aid of computer-controlled thrusters that keep the rig positioned in the same spot regardless of sea conditions or currents. The process is somewhat like hovering in a helicopter two miles above the Empire State Building while simultaneously trying to drop a pipe down one of the elevator shafts.

Greg Cooper, telecommunications administrator, is responsible for Noble’s international very small aperture terminal (VSAT) network, which keeps the company’s drilling fleet and 20 international offices connected. “Communications has become much more important over the last few years as business processes have improved,” Cooper says. “In the past, if you couldn’t be reached it wasn’t a big deal. Co-workers simply accepted the fact that you were offshore for several days and decisions would have to wait until you returned. Now people need to be in constant communications. Our employees and our clients need reliable communications no matter where we drill.”

That is a talk task. Offshore drilling rigs are portable man-made islands, making it a challenge to communicate with them. Cooper is responsible for delivering world-class communications to Noble’s rigs, no matter the time of day or latitude and longitude. While the company remains active in the Gulf of Mexico, Noble has shifted more than 80 percent of its fleet to international waters and has rigs on station in the North Seas as well as in waters around the Middle East, Mexico, Brazil, West Africa and India.

When Cooper joined Noble, the company used Inmarsat terminals on each rig to supply voice and data communications. Inmarsat operates a fleet of satellites that provide communications services for the maritime industry. Inmarsat’s shipboard terminals feature a gimbaled antenna that can track a satellite even though the ship or rig may be rocking in heavy seas. Traditional fixed satellite antennas would loose the link with a satellite if used on a floating vessel. “Inmarsat provided good coverage, but we believed we could find a better price point for the services,” Cooper says.

Moving To VSAT
The development of stabilized, tracking VSAT antennas finally allowed traditional satellite technology to be utilized for maritime applications. In 2004, Noble made the strategic decision to deploy a VSAT network as the backbone of its offshore communications network. After a formal bid process, Rignet, a Houston-based satellite communications company which serves the drilling industry, received a contract from Noble. “VSAT hardware costs more than an Inmarsat terminal, but the monthly recurring costs were roughly five times less,” says Cooper. “We were able to show a very good return on investment.”

In addition to lowering monthly costs, the upgrade to VSAT allowed Noble to provide more bandwidth to each rig. The company uses an asymmetrical network design that provides speeds of up to 192 kilobit per second from the rig to the beach and up to 2 megabits per second to the rigs, Cooper says. Because the company has operations in so many different regions, Noble’s satellite network connects to teleports in the United States, Brazil, Switzerland, the Middle East and India.

Noble’s rigs are equipped with Internet Protocol (IP)-based telephone systems, routers, switches, firewalls and local area networks — both copper and fiber. “Our voice network is all [voice over IP], and a Noble employee can reach one of our international offices by dialing a three-digit extension,” says Cooper.

In the past, as energy companies would contract for a rig’s services, they would specify the communication vendor that would provide services. The communications company would install its hardware and then remove it when the contact was up. “This constant stream of installs and de-install every six months left the rig a mess,” Cooper says. “The rig superintendents weren’t real happy with us.”

Rignet approached drilling companies with the novel idea of installing a first-class information technology infrastructure on rigs at no charge. This would insure that the onboard network was designed and installed properly and eliminate the inconvenience of vendors tearing up the rig to remove equipment. The drilling company would be able to use the network as if it was their own. Rignet would make its money by charging the energy company fees for using the network. The concept was successful, and over a number of years Rignet has captured roughly 25 percent of the global offshore drilling market. Rignet later began supplying and managing satellite links to the rigs as a value-added service to its clients.

Drilling rigs operate round the clock and are a beehive of activity. In addition to Noble employees, there are other personnel who come and go. This includes engineers from an army of support companies as well as the crews of helicopter and work boats that ferry supplies and equipment to the rigs.

In addition to its own needs, Noble’s primary clients — the energy companies which contract the rigs — and various support companies all need to communicate with their offices onshore as well. Noble’s network has the capability to provide additional bandwidth to multiple companies as required. “The energy companies that hire our rigs typically need much more bandwidth than we do,” Cooper says. “They have their own voice, data and videoconferencing requirements. Our network allows us to provide a dedicated chunk of bandwidth for their needs.”

As a part of the Rignet standardized infrastructure, Noble installed 802.11.G wireless networks on its rigs. “The wireless network allows a visiting third party service company to quickly connect their laptop and access their e-mail back at the home office,” Cooper says. “From their network operations center in Houston, Rignet can turn on the connection with a keyboard command.”

Interestingly, Noble does not use its the wireless network for its own purposes. “We already have our infrastructure in place and don’t need the wireless network,” Cooper says. “Since so many engineers come and go, rotating in and out of quarters and offices on the rig, the wireless network saves everyone a lot of time.”

Noble runs a variety of data applications that make e-mail and Internet access a critical requirement. “Just about every engineer that sets foot on one of our rigs needs to ship CAD (computer-aided design) files around and they are often very large,” says Cooper. “Providing reliable e-mail support is critical.” Internet access allows Noble personnel on a rig to interface with online order entry systems of key suppliers, such as National Oilwell Varco. Being able to order parts directly from the rig saves both time and effort, ultimately reducing mistakes and saving the company money.

Noble’s maintenance department recently installed vibration analysis software that helps identify problems in rotating machinery on the rig before a total failure occurs. The software can detect when components, such as bearings, begin to fail, thereby allowing maintenance to be done on a scheduled basis. Noble also is planning a world-wide implementation of SAP, scheduled for 2007. Part of the preparation for this initiative includes understanding the amount bandwidth that will be needed to run the application on each rig. “Our ability to throttle bandwidth to every rig is very important as we move towards implementing SAP,” says Cooper.

Noble also is exploring different compression and IP acceleration technologies for use on its satellite network. “We manage our network performance closely and are always looking for ways to increase efficiencies,” Cooper says. “The new compression and acceleration technologies appear to be very favorable. We want to make sure we are squeezing out every last bit of efficiency from the bandwidth that we can.”
All of this available bandwidth is reserved for business use, Cooper says, but U.S. crews, who work 12-hour shifts for two weeks and then are off for two weeks, and international crews, who rotate in 28-day cycles, have access to other forms of satellite-related entertainment. “Internet access can be a real bandwidth hog,” he says. “We don’t allow rig hands to surf the web for entertainment over the corporate network while they are on duty because it eats up a lot of bandwidth. This has really helped us control costs. Rig hands watch a lot of satellite TV and lift a lot of weights when they aren’t on duty.” Noble provides its rig employees with an Internet kiosk that allows the workers to have greater access to entertainment Web sites, Web-based e-mail and other features and is separated from the company’s corporate network by a virtual local area network.

No Time For Downtime
Exploring for oil is an expensive business. Business costs increase significantly when operations shift from land to sea. Contracting for drilling services is no exception. Some of the rigs in Noble’s fleet are capable of lifting a string of drill pipe weighing 1 million pounds. The amount of engineering it takes to build and operate one of these floating behemoths is staggering. The day rates energy companies pay to hire an offshore rig ranges between $75,000 and $300,000, depending on rig type and water depth. Shaving a day off your drilling schedule is a welcome bonus. Adding several days to a well’s project timeline is unwelcome news.

“The lost opportunity costs are great in the offshore drilling business,” Cooper says. “If we don’t drill, we stand to loose a lot. Reliable communications is a mandatory component of the services we provide. Our clients can’t do their work without access to phones or a computer network. Communications has become so critical in day-to-day business operations that the availability of the communication system is now specified in our drilling contracts. If we loose communications, we loose money; up-time is essential. The availability that Rignet provides has proven to be an asset.”

Cooper is upbeat about the unknown challenges that lie ahead and is confident about the ability of Noble’s information technology and communication infrastructure to deliver world-class services. Noble’s VSAT network provides the company a flexible and reliable means to communicate with its fleet anywhere in the world. While Noble is constantly working to improve its operations and its communications, Cooper summed up the challenge the company faces: “The better you get, the more the end users expect.”

Greg Berlocher is a 20-year veteran of the satellite industry. He is a writer and a photographer and his work has appeared in numerous publications.

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