This article appeared in the June 2009 edition of the Permian Basin Oil and Gas magazine
When Randy Krall tells an operator that he is in the “remote monitoring” business, the operator no longer responds with a “What’s that?”
“At least they have heard of it,” said Krall, president of Wellkeeper, Inc., an Albuquerque, N.M,.-based technology company that has been involved in remote monitoring in the Permian Basin for six years. “The industry is still in its infancy, but it is no longer obscure.”
Krall acknowledged that every well and every situation is different, but he claimed there are four advantages to having a remote monitoring system. The first advantage, he said, is reducing cost by making people more efficient.
“We like to say it lets the pumper be the pumper,” he said. “When he takes off in the morning, he knows where the problem is. It means less routine driving and less gas.”
“We call it ‘pump by exception,’ ” added David Hight, North American sales manager for the smart, self-powered wireless “iNodes” sensors that Tyler-based Ferguson Beauregard, Inc., has developed. “Let’s say a pumper is babysitting 10 wells, and he goes to each of them clockwise every day. That is time-consuming and not an efficient way to use your resources. With remote monitoring, he can see the pressure has dropped at the No. 4 well, and he can go to it first. He visits the trouble spots first and addresses that well’s issue.”
Reducing environmental exposure is the second advantage, according to Krall, because sensors can be equipped with an alarm.
“Depending on the volume, a problem at a well can be either an inconvenience or a catastrophe,” he noted.
“All of our sensors are fully alarmable,” emphasized Ferguson Beauregard’s Hight. “If there is a high level or a low level, or high pressure or low pressure, an alarm goes off, and the pumper or operator can be notified by cell phone or e-mail.”
The third advantage to remote monitoring, according to Krall, is the pumper knows when there is a problem and can get the well back on line quicker, thus increasing production.
“The fourth dimension may be a little harder to wrap your arms around,” Krall stated, “but it gives you better access to data and what is really going on with the well. The well’s production may look normal if you are looking at it just once a day, but if you are looking at the data in real time, you may discover a problem.”
Krall explained that there are three components to remote monitoring – sensors at the well site, a way to communicate the data out of the field, and then a way to present it.
Sensors can monitor any number of things from tank levels to pressures, gas volumes, electronic flow meters, liquid volumes or water volumes at a disposal site.
Ferguson Beauregard has been making sensors for the oil and gas industry for 35 years, but got involved in the remote monitoring end of the business about nine years ago with the development of its wireless “iNodes.”
“These sensors talk to an RTU (remote terminal unit) or CCU (central collection unit or central communication unit),” Hight said. “We can be as little or as much help as the customer wants. We can do it all, or we can take the data and push it to an existing radio. Think of the sensors as spokes on a wheel, and the CCU as a hub. The hub can talk to each of the sensors.”
A typical well site, according to Hight, might include four “iNodes,” two oil tank level sensors, a flow tubing pressure sensor and an electronic flow meter.
“Each device talks to the CCU,” he explains. “A pumper can touch a button, and it will show instantaneous reading. He can see a digital LED reading at one location.”
That has a safety advantage as well, Krall added, pointing out that the pumper no longer has to crawl up a ladder to the top of the tank to check the fluid level.
Getting Out of the Field
The second part of the remote monitoring function is the ability of getting the data out of the field. Hight said Ferguson Beauregard uses either satellite or digital cell technology, “depending on the client’s needs.”
Krall said Wellkeeper, Inc., is now using digital cellular service to get the data out of the field, but that has been an evolution over the last seven years.
“We started out using satellite, then analog cell service and now digital cell,” he noted. “The price keeps going down with every technological change.”
“That is a huge advantage,” Greg Scoggins, vice president of sales and marketing for Wellkeeper, Inc., said of digital cellular service. “When we started, we used analog cellular service. That was spotty at best. Satellite allowed universal coverage, but the expense was high and there was only limited data available a few times a day. Digital cellular service came in on the back of the consumer network, and the oil and gas industry benefited.”
Surprisingly, Krall said cell service is usually available in even the most remote locations in the Permian Basin.
“You think about having service on your cell phone to make a call,” he explained, “but we have stronger radios and a fixed antenna. There are only a handful of sites that still use the satellite options.”
“Satellite is still a fall-back,” added Scoggins, “but with a 20-foot antenna, we have coverage almost everywhere, and you can get information every five minutes. It is far cheaper than satellite with 12 times more data frequency. We call it ‘near real time.’ ”
The one thing that Wellkeeper’s system doesn’t do is turn something on or off, but Scoggins said that is the next step in the evolution of its system.
He said SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems can do that now, but they are really expensive and are only being used by the major companies that have their own information technology (IT) department.
“Our system is not meant to replace the pumper,” Scoggins reiterated. “The idea is to make the pumper more efficient.”
Krall said Wellkeeper’s system offers “80 percent of the functionality at 20 percent of the cost” compared to the much more expensive SCADA systems.
Space Data Corporation offers perhaps the most unique method of getting the data out of the field. For the last five years, the Chandler, Ariz.-based company has launched a constellation of industrial weather balloons every day or several times a day to provide 24/7 coverage to the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin.
Andy Germer, managing director of Space Data’s commercial network, said the balloons comprise a free-floating network that operates between 60,000 and 100,000 feet altitude, well above airline traffic.
“The network is owned by Space Data,” he explained. “We own the nationwide frequency at 900 mhz, so there are no restrictions of interference. We fly coverage in a 200-mile radius of Midland. Wind speeds are constant at about 15-25 mph at that altitude. We know that at certain times of the year, we launch from the west and certain times of the year from the east.”
Germer said the weather balloons eventually disintegrate in the atmosphere, but their payloads, the transceivers that provide the communications, float back to the earth attached to a parachute. The balloons are equipped with global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, so they can be tracked and recovered. Space Data technicians also have the ability to steer the balloons, moving them up or down into various thermal systems.
“Cell coverage is not good in a lot of West Texas,” Germer stated. “We are trying to automate wells so it lessens the need to check a well or pipeline every day.”
Services that Space Data offers the oil and gas industry, according to Germer, include alarm monitoring of storage tanks, compressors and pipelines, production monitoring, tracking compressors, drilling rigs, service trucks and frac tanks via GPS, and cathodic protection monitoring and notification. Field communications is also available.
Displaying the Data
Scoggins said Wellkeeper can provide a Web-based presentation of its data or it can integrate the information into a company’s existing software program.
“We supply a nice Web presentation with graphs and charts,” he pointed out, “or we can provide an Excel spread sheet and integrate into a company’s accounting system.”
Hight said Ferguson Beauregard’s wireless “iNode” sensors can “push that data to whatever is receiving it or we can provide an ‘iNode’ viewer, which is Web-based for the user that has Internet access.”
Automating the Routine
Remote monitoring is designed to make the oil and gas industry more efficient.
“We want to automate the routine, mundane, and sometimes dangerous things that pumpers do,” related Hight. “Remote monitoring is good management of personnel. If the device monitors the routine, it frees the pumper to do what he does best, which is to fix problems and increase production instead of routinely climbing on tanks. That makes sense.”
“This isn’t a toy,” Krall said of remote monitoring. “It is a real business benefit to solve very painful problems. It takes communication software and builds a complex solution.”
By Al Pickett, Special Correspondent