Energy producers are struggling today, with many looking for a lifeline. The low prices that have beset the industry since year-end 2014 show no signs of abating. In fact, estimates call for this trend to continue for the foreseeable future, and low prices have producers scrambling to find ways to cut costs and make their operations more efficient. Technology might be poised to offer that lifeline. The advent of the digital oil field promises not just to reduce costs but to improve production as well.

High cost, delays
Well and pipeline data collection has always been expensive and inefficient. It has traditionally been handled manually, with technicians traveling from well site to well site, adjusting valve settings, measuring tank levels, reading pressure gauges and operating pumps. The vast travel that’s required is expensive and often hazardous for staff.

It is also incredibly time-consuming. It can take weeks for technicians to complete a round of well visits and return with the collected data since these same technicians are also generally expected to check well sites for signs of problems like leaks and process equipment malfunctions and, if necessary, fix them. This just adds to the delays that are already a natural function of manual operations. By the time it’s collected, the information on which vital decisions are being made can be 45 days old or more. These delays often cause a variety of problems, including frozen production, inoperable equipment, and excessively low-pressure and maxed-out levels, all of which can go unnoticed for months at a time.

The digital oil field promises to help producers overcome these cost and timing challenges, and the help couldn’t come at a better time. The digital oil field is essentially a “smart” version of the traditional wired data collection infrastructure. Data are collected remotely with wireless multivariable transmitters and beamed wirelessly to operators, who can interpret the data in
real time and make timely operational decisions.

Smart technology has become ubiquitous in everyone’s life. Smart phones have turned phones into tiny but powerful computers. Smart homes allow people to adjust their heat, lights and appliances from anyplace they happen to be. And pretty soon, smart cars are going to take people wherever they want to go without having to lift a finger.

The smart technology of the digital oil field works the same way, eliminating many of the manual processes that make energy production so time-consuming and costly. The data that’s collected at the well can now be seamlessly and instantly transmitted
via the digital oil field.

The digital oil field combines a number of old and new technologies into a network permitting remote operation of wells, no matter how distant and isolated their locations. The oldest of the technologies that make up the digital oil field goes back to the 1980s and the development of low Earth orbit satellite communications, which reduced communications costs to the point where it was feasible for oil and gas production. At the same time, improvements to SCADA systems permitted not only remote monitoring but also programmable automation capabilities. As a result, well flow data can now be uploaded and made visible in near-real time, providing instant information about day-to-day production operations.

Another important element of the digital oil field is database technology, which allows oil and gas companies to deploy analytics and asset management software applications. Modeling and simulation software also allows petroleum engineers to more effectively determine where to drill and better forecast production from new plays. By linking SCADA systems to these databases, digital oilfield operators can now apply analytics, modeling and optimization to their field processes, which provides tighter controls and increased efficiencies across production fields.

Big data takes these capabilities to a new level through its ability to operate across multiple processors, providing a much larger scale than prior database technologies. Considering that operators can have tens of thousands of wells, the benefits of such massive networks are clear. No matter how much information is coming in from the sensors, big data can not only accommodate the volume but also most appropriately distribute information to users.

Likewise, mobile communication is a game changer for energy producers. Unlike the early years of digital oilfield operations when system users were largely confined to a single control room, mobile devices make information available to numerous personnel anytime and anywhere, providing access to SCADA systems, measurement information systems and big data systems.

The heart of the digital oil field is modern wireless technology, which eliminates the need for much of the costly infrastructure that has encumbered the industry for well over a century. There’s no longer any need to install and maintain massive wired infrastructure to provide operational information and flow data to operators. By enabling wireless communications within the well site, wireless instruments dramatically reduce operational costs, reduce safety risks for well personnel and even provide greener operations. By eliminating conduits, conduit seals, intrinsic safety barriers and wiring as well as associated installation labor, wireless instrumentation can reduce installation costs by as much as 60%.

Imagine the advantages of being able to have a completely wireless well site. Users can access flow measurement information in real time and continuously monitor levels, pressures, temperatures and process unit status. At the same time custody-transfer metering installations become more reliable, safer, more secure, simpler to operate and environmentally friendly.

And perhaps most importantly in these days of belt tightening, all of these can happen at a fraction of the cost of traditional manual operations.

Next frontier
The wonders of the technology age are far from tapped out. The next big thing is the internet of things (IoT), and its benefits to energy producers will be extraordinary. The IoT is essentially a universal standard by which anything with an on/off switch will be connectable to the internet.

This technology will have obvious benefits for energy producers. Essentially the IoT, when combined with the other elements of the digital oil field (SCADA, mobile and wireless technologies), will permit operators to connect huge numbers of wells and their monitoring equipment to technicians and managers. By providing this unprecedented access to so much vital data with a minimum of physical infrastructure, the IoT-enabled digital oil field will make operations much more efficient and less costly. In fact, the cost savings will be incredible, both in terms of capital development and maintenance costs for equipment and reduced personnel costs for collecting and reading data.

The cost savings and increased productivity promised by the digital oil field couldn’t come at a better time. Many energy producers are struggling because prices have been so low for so long. For companies looking for a lifeline, the digital oil field promises not just to keep them afloat but to provide advantages that will improve their operations and benefit their bottom lines for years to come.