In a culture that glorifies and relies so heavily upon the personal automobile, it shouldn’t be so surprising that gas prices are employed by pundits, alternatively, as scapegoats for low retail sales or as a bellwether for impending upturns. Just about every update on monthly retail sales will include a comment on the general state of the cost of a barrel of crude, and the recent months-long slide in the cost of gasoline might as well have been a holiday among the poor journalists covering that beat.
But for all the stories focused on the rising and falling nature of oil markets, almost no attention is paid to the companies that are trying to stabilize those prices, and Shell may have made a breakthrough with the Internet of Things and its oilfields in rural Nigeria.
RCR Wireless News spoke to several people involved in a Royal Dutch Shell project to install IoT sensors over its 80 oilfields in the western African nation that produce upwards of 600,000 barrels of oil per day, or 21 percent of the country’s oil-bearing capacity. In a perfect world, it would be ideal for Shell to be able to remotely monitor the output and performance of each individual well, but most of these sites are located in the Niger Delta, which is not impassable by modern means but can slow down maintenance and drilling crews during transit. Moreover, spotty network infrastructure in the area, combined with the rough terrain’s effect on weak signals, pushed Shell and its partner organization, Upland Consulting, to choose a low-power, long-range IoT network solution put out by San Diego-based Ingenu, known as random phase multiple access (RPMA), to bridge the many gaps.
“The key criteria for selecting a solution were the technology’s ability to cover difficult terrain, power performance and long-range transmission, as well as network scalability, two-way communications and secure data transmission,” Upland Consulting CEO Bola Awobamise told RCR Wireless. “Ingenu’s RPMA offered all of these attributes.”
While oil production may be a multi-billion dollar enterprise, Shell’s investment in Ingenu’s RPMA sensors was anything but. Each sensor can project and receive signals in a 450-square-mile area, and their small sizes — no larger than shoeboxes and attachable to existing infrastructure — meant that Shell only had to spend $87,000 to monitor its entire oil production capacity in Nigeria.
No small feat, said Ingenu CEO John Horn.
“Where we would put one tower, cellular companies would put about 30 towers,” Horn told RCR Wireless. “It took three months to build this network in the Nigerian Delta … [for] cellular companies, it would have taken them a couple years to try to figure it out and develop it, and they still wouldn’t have built it because it costs so much money and there are not people there to support it.”
Not having people on site to support these sensors seems entirely the point. Indeed, Shell saw immediate results after installing the eight modules and collecting near-constant data on well production rates. RCR reports a return of $1 million on the $87,000 it spent buying and installing the IoT system in rural Nigeria.
While IoT sensors can help oil producers when things are running smoothly, they’re also proving to be valuable tools when things go wrong in the field. Drillers off the coast of Alaska have been working with IoT sensors for years to monitor when systems go down, and Mark McKinley of Hilcorp Energy Company explained that real-time notifications aren’t always the primary benefit of onsite IoT sensors in oil drilling. Sometimes, the data on exactly what’s gone wrong from the machines themselves is the more important part.
“The last time we had a well trip offline, within five minutes, we had a phone call telling us what broke, what to look at and how to test it,” McKinley said in an interview with Microsoft. “It saved six hours of troubleshooting or more, and we got right back online. The staff is ecstatic, because they get support before they have to break out manuals and figure it out on their own.”
It’s enough to get environmentalists and Big Oil on the same side.