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Tough RFID Tag Strikes Oil

Trailblazer is among the drilling companies using a ruggedized RFID tag that its manufacturer, Merrick Systems, says is the toughest in the market.
By Claire Swedberg
May 23, 2008Merrick Systems is providing an embedded RFID tag for oil drilling that it says is more rugged than other RFID tags, both in its ability to withstand high and low temperatures, as well as its adherence to the drill pipes as they are exposed to rotation, pressure, heat, abrasion and various chemicals in oil wells. Thus far the tag is being used by Trailblazer Drilling Corp., a division of Savannah Energy Services, and is being piloted by other unnamed companies.

Although many oil companies, oil-drilling operators and drilling-equipment providers are using RFID tags to track the multiple pipes that are joined together in long vertical strings for drilling wells, many RFID tags simply fail to perform after exposure to heat generated in the drilling process, get knocked loose or are unreadable through heavy coatings of mud. The Merrick tags, part of the Merrick Systems hardware and software solution for tracking equipment on the oil field, are about the size and shape of a U.S. quarter and embedded into the drill pipe and tubing in locations where they are less likely to be damaged. The tags that Merrick sells are encased in Victrex Peek polymers to withstand extremely high temperatures.

Merrick RFID tags are embedded in circular pockets machined into drill pipes.
"Peek polymer is more robust—it can stand up to chemicals and heat. That's the advantage for the oil industry," says Melanie Gast, Victrex regional business manager for oil and gas. Most plastics are not chemical resistant and cannot sustain high temperatures, such as the conditions found in oil wells.

Merrick Systems is primarily an industrial information technology software provider, says Merrick president and CEO Kemal Farid. In 2005 the company saw the benefit of using RFID technology as the company entered the drilling market, and designed a software system for drill equipment and developed its own RFID tag with a 125 kHz passive chip compliant with ISO 18000-2 standard. The 125 kHz frequency provides a short read range, says Ian Binmore, Merrick's director of drilling products, with less interference from the highly metallic environment and better able to read through chemicals that are used in the drilling process. Those chemicals include drilling fluids, acidizing treatments and polymer fluids designed to break up rock, and cements for drill hole walls, to name a few. In 2007 Merrick began offering the full RFID system, which includes HP IPAQ handheld computers with RFID readers provided by Ecom Instruments and other industrial suppliers.

Ian Binmore, Merrick's director of drilling products.
Without RFID, oil drill companies have several problems. They can't know exactly where a drill has been before, how it was used or how old it is. Sections of pipe used for making a drill assembly are stored on racks in the derrick during drilling operations or stacked on racks in pipe yards. Often to find the right piece for the drill string they are building, roughnecks need to climb around and on racks of pipe (often in windy conditions) measuring pipe with tape measures. They then write down the specifications on a piece of paper and manually enter the data into a computer later. In some cases they may use stencils to spray-paint identifying numbers on drill pipe, but that is only partially helpful. If the mark is facing the wrong way on the rack, or if it has been covered by mud or worn away, it doesn't serve any purpose.

The equipment owners embed the Merrick tags into circular pockets machined into sides of the pipes by the owners themselves or by third-party installers, explains Binmore. These embedded RFID tags, used in conjunction with Merrick software, allows oil-field owners, drilling companies, and drilling equipment leasing companies to track equipment locations and know how it has been used by keeping an electronic record of where each piece of equipment has been and the temperature, chemicals, pressure and depth it has been exposed to, and for how long. This kind of tracking helps equipment users avoid accidents, such as a catastrophic drill string failure or breakage underground, or injuries to drilling employees.

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