Over the past decade the oil and gas industry has moved more rapidly to adopt full automation systems, which are typically termed SCADA. By using a remote terminal unit (RTU) and a wireless communication system, producers can reduce the amount of windshield time for their operators.

The monitoring and control of field operations can be brought back to a central location where fewer people can monitor more field assets. Field operators can then be dispatched to problem wells as opposed to spending their time driving to sites that do not necessarily need attention. On the whole, this is much more effective and allows producers to lower their cost of operation. The question is, what have we given up?

The reality is that these systems are usually more complex, they become more challenging to maintain, and control is taken away from the field operators who may know the well sites best. Too many times, I hear of frustrated operators that want to make a simple change to the system but are forced to call up an operator at the plant or connect to the system using their laptop and an unreliable cell connection. They feel like these systems are more of a burden than a benefit and are getting in the way of doing their job. Often times, operators end up putting standalone controllers in place of an RTU when it fails or does not work as expected.

Controls companies have lost sight of the user experience for some of their users. Why should producers have to choose between the flexibility and elegance of full automation at the plant vs. the simplicity and usability of a built-for-purpose controller that stands alone at the well site? The answer is that you don’t have to choose because there are solutions that give you the best of both worlds.

Standalone controllers in plunger lift applications were slowly disappearing as producers started using programmable RTUs that included a plunger lift application. These RTUs were part of end-to-end SCADA systems that include radios and a plant- or web-based human-machine interface. Operators became frustrated and pushed back, forcing controls manufacturers to look for alternative solutions.

As a manufacturer of application-specific plunger lift controllers, Extreme Telematics Corp. felt this pain and designed a line of controllers with a communications port that speaks MODBUS, a standard protocol in the oil field. Not only can these controls be used as a standalone solution, but now they can act as the RTU or in conjunction with another RTU at site to be part of the full solution.

Producers have seen a number of benefits as they adopt these smarter, more connected controllers. They still get the benefit of a connected well site with management from the plant, office or home, but now operators onsite can directly check the status of the system and make changes right at the well site. These controls are simple to install and configure, have more safety functionality and optimization routines, and don’t require any custom application development. This allows operators to focus on what they do best: ensure that each well site is producing the best it can.