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The Internet of Things is a Long Way Off

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We’re a long way away from achieving the goals, dreams and fantasies of the Internet of Things in the production oil patch. It’s not because of the lack of imagination or technology. The sensors and their collection/aggregation systems are not capable of providing the wealth of data needed for IoT to deliver.

Upstream and downstream don’t have the problem. The newer rigs are fully equipped to gather, process and forward robust data streams from varied sensor suites. Refineries and petrochemical are progressively and wonderfully automated.

Midstream, not so much.

All those wells, pads, gathering systems and pipes are a device mismatch of varied ages, types, capabilities, operating systems, data rates and serviceability. Wells come online, go into production and get instrumented with whatever the operator decides to install. It’s not all state of the art.

Companies buy and sell whole fields and tack them onto existing properties. Newly acquired fields from bankruptcies are generally not well maintained and they most certainly won’t match the new owner’s system. They get purchased for what’s in the ground, not particularly what’s above it.

Unlike a desktop or laptop, off the shelf SCADA stuff does not interconnect well, if at all, with gear from other manufacturers. The newer does not fit the older. Kudos to integrated manufacturers whose product lines can plug and play from wellhead to website. However, nobody rips out functional pieces to replace one missing or weak link, just to gain end-to-end connectivity.

Then there’s the data rates. IoT thrives on a lot of streaming data. It assumes robust bandwidth to easily digest and mine mountains of data. But midstream has been minimizing data streams by adjusting sampling rates, normalizing and minimizing what’s input to the network. All that has been, and continues to be, reasonable because of the restrictions on bandwidth from multiple remote sites to central data centers.

With oil prices in the toilet predictably for many months to come and companies slashing both budgets and staff, data integrity will be the second casualty of cutbacks (safety will be the first, but that’s another topic altogether). Sensors will fail, systems will weaken and there won’t be enough money to keep it up, let alone upgrade. The logic of automation for long-term operational efficiency won’t find enough short term cash to get it done.

I0T is valid, and it will work down hole, in refineries, in our factories and in our homes. But, in midstream it will require a lot more than a new computer with spiffy software.

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