The Coronavirus is changing working practices in the offshore energy markets, but may also create opportunities for those who embrace digitalisation
The current global crisis is a disruptive force for the entire oil and gas sector, not to mention business and society at large. On the exploration side, project cancellations and market instability are forcing companies to save costs to minimise economic exposure, while retaining the flexibility to quickly ramp activities up again as circumstances allow.
“This prompts the need to reconsider operational strategy and introduce new working practices,” says Michael Owen, Director Energy, Maritime at Marlink, “based on more advanced technology solutions that move the industry forward.”
Ramping up speed
Seismic exploration and imaging is one of the most data-intensive parts of the value chain, using some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers available today. As exploration moved to deeper waters in more remote locations, satellite communications is the only viable connectivity option between vessels and shore.
Uplink bandwidth is key for sending massive image files and, historically, satellite services weren’t cost-effective enough or capable of the speeds required. But that’s changing. Today, a 20-25 Mbps uplink is a viable speed to transmit approximately 200GB of data in a 24-hour period, which is enough to reduce time to market and achieve adequate financial payback.
Seismic vessels that typically wish to send around 500GB of data a day can achieve this with a 50 Mbps link. At the top end, the requirement is approaching 1.5 terabytes a day, using a 150 Mbps link.
These figures are now feasible, but it all comes down to location, antenna size and capacity available on the satellite network. Moreover, this capacity needs to be mobile, as the survey vessel transits from one location to another every few months. Availability of satellite capacity relates to a specific geographic area and contract timing therefore needs to match the vessel’s movement.
This may require stitching together coverage from multiple network operators across different bands, depending on what’s available in a given area – although options are more limited in remote maritime areas compared to on land.
And since client operations are usually geographically distributed, highly secure transmission is required to multiple destinations, including corporate headquarters, regional offices, data centres and cloud services.
Reducing vessel size
In the short term, making best use of the bandwidth currently available will be the priority. In the longer term, these higher levels of bandwidth and mobility enable seismic survey companies to remove supercomputers from vessels.
“This reduces the need for specialists on board, who could manage the survey process remotely via the crew,” argues Owen, “with the ultimate end game being reduced vessel size and associated cost savings this brings.”
These may be steps too far for some companies, who prefer to retain processing on board – albeit smaller – and make physical copies of data recordings as back-up in the event of satellite network outages or equipment failure in this remote and challenging working environment.
In either scenario, any satellite communications provider worthy of consideration should be committing to end-to-end Service Level Agreements that assure a high level of network availability – at least 99.9% – and building redundancy into the network design.
Keeping staff safe
The need to keep staff safe during remote survey assignments has always been a priority, but never more so than now. Maintaining a sanitised working environment is creating significant operational challenges, particularly during crew changeovers.
Incoming crew need to be quarantined for up to 14 days, depending on local regulations. Or individuals may need to be socially isolated on board if they do start to show virus symptoms.
Welfare communications are even more important during this time. The ability to make video calls home, access email, social media, news and entertainment services is vital to maintaining morale during these enforced periods of downtime.
Plus, the ability to access telemedicine services from experts onshore offers some peace of mind when there may be a greater risk of a health emergency on board. Upgrading bandwidth to handle increased traffic from welfare communications is no longer nice to have, but necessary.
Restricted operational practices imposed by the current pandemic are likely to accelerate adoption of IoT applications. Remote management of processes using restricted links already in place can help keep operations running at minimal cost in the near term.
Sustainability and survivability
The current global crisis may have taken the spotlight off environmental concerns for the moment, but operating in a sustainable manner remains a strategic priority for seismic survey companies.
“Ultimately, if high-bandwidth, real-time satellite communications can accelerate the exploration process and reduce the number of days a vessel needs to spend at sea, then its contribution to cleaner, safer operations justifies the investment,” concludes Owen.
But there will be communications providers who do not survive the economic trauma this crisis has unleashed. Sustainability, in this context, extends to supplier choice as well and who is trusted to be there for the long term.