Talk is cheap, except when it comes to the oilfield.

Basic cell service remains an issue in the wide open spaces oil and gas producers often find themselves in.

Tech companies such as Digi International are among firms leading modernization efforts by improving and modernizing oilfield communication.

Advancements, even iterative changes in sharing information, are part of E&Ps’ march toward efficiency and cost savings—a crucial way to insulate operators from the price shocks the industry routinely suffers.

“When we went through the [commodity price] crash and COVID, Curt Ahart, vice president of corporate business development for Digi, told Hart Energy, “I think all the producers had to look and say, ‘How do we make money when oil’s at $40/bbl?’ And so automation is really the key to that, and efficiency. And the biggest cost anybody has … besides their capital expense expenditures, is people. And if you can do more with less and those people can be a lot more efficient, I think that’s the major benefit.”

Curt Ahart
Curt Ahart, vice president of corporate business development at Digi. (Source: Digi)

Even as the industry pursues further digitization of its operations, companies are encountering challenges.

One of the primary obstacles is inadequate communication infrastructure in remote areas where E&Ps operate. Ahart hears from industry professionals that reliance on public cellular networks often proves insufficient beyond a certain range from major highways, he said. As operations extend farther into remote locations, cell tower coverage becomes increasingly unreliable.

Companies are turning to specialized radio frequency (RF) engineering techniques to mitigate this lack of connectivity.

“To address that, people use RF engineering, they’ll use things like directional antennas and high gain antennas to reach that remote site,” Ahart said. “Putting up your own private cellular networks is something that we see as an emerging technology where somebody can take that carrier network and put up their own network and extend that network out to remote sites.”

As an Internet of Things, or IoT, solutions company, Digi’s bread and butter is its wireless technology portfolio. Included among these are the company’s wireless cellular routers. Digi’s routers are wireless and provide a private and secure cellular connection for all devices running within its range in the oilfield. The routers, combined with the move to further digitize the industry, have led to several remote applications becoming available for operators: downhole pressure and temperature monitoring, flare monitoring for emissions and simple video monitoring.

The Digi Remote Manager
The Digi Remote Manager can configure, deploy and manage remote assets via private cellular connections. (Source: Digi)

Another critical barrier is the difficulty accessing and integrating data from existing proprietary systems and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) setups.

Traditional SCADA systems, characterized by their pull-and-response mechanisms, are gradually being replaced by more agile, messaging-based architectures like MQTT (message queuing telemetry transport) Sparkplug B, said Ahart. The tech enables seamless data transmission from edge devices to central nodes or brokers, facilitating integration with other systems such as historians and ERP platforms.

“What’s cool about that is having the flexibility of adding new applications and changing things without having to do integration and testing of all the components because they all become decoupled and you’re using an open systems type of architecture.”

As the move toward oilfield digitization gathers steam, the risks for cybersecurity also rise. The adoption of digital and automated technologies aims not only to enhance operational efficiency but also to address cybersecurity concerns.

“There are a lot of things that we do within our products to make sure they’re secure. So we ship them with no default password. Firmware needs to be authenticated as Digi firmware. We have encrypted storage on our devices protected ports,” Ahart said. “We just did a FIPS 140-2 certification for [the] federal government, which a lot of our critical infrastructure customers are really happy about.”

The EX50 5G Cellular Router is an example of Digi’s private network capabilities, with the
The IX10 Cellular Router is an example of Digi’s private network capabilities, able to extend network connection deep in the oilfield. (Source: Digi)

As digital transformation reshapes workflows in the oil and gas sector, there is a growing emphasis on addressing workforce skill gaps. While younger professionals tend to be more comfortable with technology, training and deployment processes still need to be streamlined and intuitive. Tools such as zero-touch provisioning are increasingly employed to simplify installation and reduce operational downtime, optimizing resource utilization and enhancing safety protocols, Ahart said.

Ahart expects a shift toward open and interoperable systems to continue, mirroring developments he saw in the IT industry decades ago. Advancements in networking technologies, including cellular networks and satellite communications, promise to extend connectivity to previously inaccessible assets. The integration of cloud-based infrastructures for data processing signifies a departure from traditional mainframe-centric approaches, allowing for greater scalability and operational flexibility.

“I see us being able to reach more and more assets in a more economical way.… The cellular networks keep getting built out and the technology becomes more pervasive on a global basis. We’re going to just see that continue, and the cost of that can continue to go down while performance, whether that’s speed or latency, continues to improve.”