World without wires
Wireless technology has many, many applications, but its full impact has yet to be fully exploited in the industrial arena.
Wireless technology can be seen in everyday use in personal communications, whether that's mobile phones or computer accessories. But industrial wireless applications, originally stemming from the need to have real-time control over a network system, are still developing.
Industries, especially process industries, have yet to take full advantage of wireless technology's ability to improve production and security, minimise costs and extend the lifetime of new and existing equipment.
"Wireless instrument technology - based on radio signal rather than hard wired communication - has aroused as much interest as it has scepticism," said Todor Todorov, Honeywell's marketing and business development leader, Field Instrumentation.
"Some question the reliability and security of wireless networks, while others recognise the reduced installation costs it represents and the improved cost effectiveness it brings. However, the principal requirement of industrial wireless technology is clear; it has to be robust, reliable, cost effective and totally secure."
There are different wireless systems, but one of the most common platforms is Fieldbus. This technology emerged in the 1970s as part of initial attempts to provide control functionality. With the introduction of a Distributed Control System (DCS), processing plants were able to distribute intelligent control throughout process facilities.
"Wireless is the next frontier to enabling total plant optimisation and safety," said Todorov.
"It's the greatest thing to come along in process automation ever since the launch of the microprocessor-based DCS in the 1970s. Wireless is the best industrial innovation to have come along in the past 30 years."
But despite such resounding endorsements of the technology and its potential applications, its use in sectors such as construction and oil and gas has been limited.
As Leif Eriksen, director of energy and utilities industry solutions group at Symbol Technologies (now owned by Motorola) told a recent conference in Dubai: "Today, the penetration of wireless in the oil and gas industry worldwide is less than 10%, but is now attracting a tremendous amount of interest. Having wireless and having it widely-used are two different things.
"If somebody says they have wireless, they may have it in an office or a warehouse but not necessarily in every facility."
Eriksen noted that BP, which was one of the first energy majors to adopt wireless technology in its refineries and offshore rigs, currently has less than 20-25% deployment, meaning there is still a lot of potential for growth.
Now energy companies are waking up to the fact that wireless communication has the potential to increase production and help reduce costs.
"Aside from the obvious benefits of reduced cost for incremental measurements, there is the benefit of mobility and implement of applications that simply could not have been implemented with a wired structure," said Hesh Kagan, director, Technology Services, Applications, and Solutions for Invensys Process Systems.
"New maintenance, safety, security and asset tracking applications will add directly to improved plant performance."
Other examples can be found in offshore production, where the use of mobile video and new sensors reduces the need for personnel who can carry out their duties onshore, meaning less transport to and from the site reducing costs and risk. Also, enhanced monitoring systems mean problems can be identified and addressed more speedily.
"For example, the application of WiMax in the field of upstream applications has a real benefit as data generated during exploration can be transmitted in real time to engineers, who can make informed decisions," said Ferhad Patel, regional business manager, Gulf countries, Intel.
"Additionally oil drilling platforms can be connected to each other and to shore based facilities. Voice, video and data can be transmitted cost effectively, reliably and securely thus providing a command centre with information on weather conditions, oil rig equipment information and work progress.
"The enhanced recovery of limited oil and gas reserves through the use of real time information systems will allow timely business decisions that generate revenue and save money," said Patel.
"Field and refinery resources can be monitored and maintained based on their condition resulting in cost savings, in addition to facilitating better collaboration between remote resources and centralised decision makers."
The requirements of the industry as a whole will be the drivers behind most of the development in specialised areas of the oil and gas industry. It will be important for any technology developed to have the capability to seamlessly integrate into existing systems, across platforms and brands.
"In the case of industrial technological advancement the evolving needs, requirements and growth of the industry form the backbone on which technology is tailored," said Todorov.
Patel believes there are already enough compelling reasons for the industry to use wireless technology.
"The oil and gas industry has been deploying satellite communication technology but now have a more cost effective and robust alternative," he said.
"Real time information allows for quicker and more efficient decision making. In an industry where milliseconds can mean the difference between success and failure, any technology that can help will be adopted and retained. It will be driven by the need to remain competitive in the world markets by enhancing the efficiency of the oil field and the refineries."
Technological breakthroughs over the last few years are also contributing to a growing interest in applying the technology.
"Developing the 802.15.4 low power radio on a chip coupled with mesh networking technology is a major technology advancement enabling industrial wireless," said Kagan. "Additionally the proliferation of the WiFi standards - 802.11xxx and WiMax 802.16xxx have helped spur [the development of] wireless solutions."
Todorov highlights similar points, suggesting that the concept of ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“mesh' networking is perhaps the biggest breakthrough.
"The mesh is a network of many intelligent ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“nodes', each communicating to one of the nodes next to it in the network topography - the more nodes the better the mesh," he said.
"With an abundance of communication paths redundancy is assured, because if a node drops out of the network for one reason or another, the other nodes around it are smart enough to realise it is no longer there and work out for themselves an alternative communications path."
Despite continuous improvements in technology, there are issues that need to be resolved before wireless networks achieve their full potential in an industrial environment. For instance, there have been safety concerns about the use of wireless equipment offshore in the oil industry, due to the fact that sparks from electronic equipment can cause damage. In response the industry has cited the development of explosion-proof packaging as essential to continued development. Wireless' use has also been hindered in the past because of unreliable technology, and conflicting standards and protocols.
"Almost certainly the most important obstacle has been the lack of progress in the various standardisation bodies," said Todorov.
The enhanced recovery of limited oil and gas reserves through the use of real time information systems will allow timely business decisions that generate revenue and save money - Ferhad Patel.
Dealing with the issue of standardisation is the work of several organisations. In the 1980s, efforts were made to develop a digital communication standard for field devices. Process control suppliers began work on their own proprietary digital communication standards resulting in a handful of competing protocols, none of which could work together.
Then, in 1994, two supplier consortiums - the InterOperable Systems Project (ISP) and WorldFIP North America - merged to form the Fieldbus Foundation. These two bodies developed open, non-proprietary specifications known as Foundation Fieldbus. This replaced incompatible networks and systems with open, fully integrated architecture for information integration and distributed real-time control. Since then, Fieldbus technology has become internationally recognised.
More current efforts at standardisation include the work of the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society's (ISA) SP100 organisation. The SP100 working group is focused on 'Class 1 to Class 5' wireless applications, which encompass applications from closed loop regulatory control, to simple monitoring using a single architecture. But there are worries from within the industry about that too.
"The most recent update on the recent SP100 Committee Decision is that there will be a 'first release' of SP100.11a timed to be sooner, rather than complete," said Todorov.
"One of the major concerns is that end users have not provided much insight to the committee on potential use of wireless networks in their operations - beyond the obvious replacement of wires - once they become available at reasonable prices. The introduction of a disruptive technology, such as wireless, has changed every other industry just when it achieved a reasonable pricing level, eg: home networks and telephony.
"Since the SP100 committee members consist of different levels and types of suppliers and few end users, it appears that no supplier is attempting to pre-empt committee work to foster their own agenda. The level of cooperation and collaboration is high. End-user members currently represent process manufacturing with little representation from discrete parts manufacturing.
"As a direct result, the current objective of the main working group, SP100.11a is to define a wireless network architecture and protocol for typical continuous and batch process control applications. Each of the two groups has different and generally complementary technology to offer. The challenge will be to develop a single standard serving the end user with an inexpensive, highly reliable, secure, and easy-to-use wireless network."
According to Stan DeVries, director of upstream solutions at Invensys, wireless networking is now more affordable for offshore production platforms.
"The cost of low-power wireless network components, including battery-powered, hazardous environment sensors, and RTUs to equip an entire platform, would fit comfortably within the budget of most offshore operations," he said. "Combined with long-range radio modems and gateways, which are also quite affordable, many platforms can afford to add sensors at process points that would not even have been thinkable with wired networks."
A recent report by US-based emerging wireless market research group ON World said that Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) are now a key area of new investment and investigation by the oil and gas industry.
Wireless solution providers are aware of the increased interest from oil and gas companies and are launching products specifically designed for the sector. In May, Cisco unveiled Cisco First Mile Wireless, which supports the augmentation of corporate networked data used by wellhead workers at remote fields and offshore. It claims the product will help "increase drilling up-time performance, improve in-field decision making processes and reduce operation costs by transforming isolated drilling sites to connected arms of the headquarter corporate network."
Cisco admits there are challenges to field deployment due to "harsh physical environments, limited infrastructure, scarce IT resources and an abundance of exposed, densely packed metal structures, which compounds wireless RF interference."
Wireless technology has been described as 'one of the culminating phases of the IT revolution'. It has the capacity to improve process work and enable people who work in the field to have access to critical information. And in the oil and gas industry, there are thousands of people working away from their desks.