Active UHF RFID Tags Muster Support for Oil Rigs

By Claire Swedberg

ConocoPhillips and other companies are using Identec Solutions' Watcheroffshore personnel-tracking safety system on North Sea oil rigs, and Identec hopes North American operations will soon do the same.

In 2003, Identec Solutions launched Watcheroffshore—a personnel-tracking safety system for offshore oil rigs. Since then, multiple oil companies have deployed the solution on rigs in the North Sea. Now, according to Frank Wehus, Identec's director of oil, gas and mining, the firm has begun marketing the system for use in North America.

Watcheroffshore uses Identec's SensorSmart software and RFID hardware to track the number of personnel on a particular oil rig at any given time, as well as their identities, based on reads of their RFID-enabled ID badges, as well as, in some cases, pinpointing each staff member's location. The system has an emergency function enabling oil-rig management and emergency responders to ensure that all personnel are accounted for if something goes wrong, such as a fire or explosion.

Watcheroffshore users in the North Sea include ConocoPhillips, which employs the RFID technology to track workers at two of its offshore centers (an offshore center consists of a single drill site with multiple platforms connected via bridges).The technology was installed on a total of 13 ConocoPhillips platforms in the North Sea in November 2008, and has since provided the company with a preparedness application that—in the event of an emergency—can indicate the zone in which a missing person's RFID-enabled badge was last read, and thereby send support to that location.

The RFID-enabled ID badges can be worn around the neck, attached to clothing or placed in a pocket. Each badge has a battery-powered ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tag that transmits its ID number at preset intervals, using a proprietary RF interface specification. The Watcheroffshore system software stores each worker's name, which is linked to the unique ID number on the badge worn or carried by that individual.

One or more fixed RFID readers can be installed on the oil platform to capture that transmission. The tags can be read up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, Wehus says, with read range set to suit a particular use case. When a reader captures a tag's ID number, it forwards that information via a cabled connection to a computer, which could then pass on that data, either to the oil company's back-end server or to an Identec server—on-site, as well as off-site—via a Wi-Fi or other Internet connection. Typically, data is stored onsite at the platform, as well as at a second, onshore location, in order to provide redundancy. In that way, if there were a problem connecting to a server onshore—due to a power failure, for example—the data would also be stored locally on the oil rig. If there are several readers on the platform, the system can determine each employee's location, with granularity dependent on the number of readers used.

The system is designed, however, to protect an individual's privacy, and typically tracks which zone an employee is in, rather than that person's specific location—which, Wehus points out, could be a concern for oil-rig workers' unions.

In the event of an emergency, the SensorSmart software receives notification from the drill site's emergency system if an alarm is sounded on the rig. The software can then, in turn, issue an alert via text message or e-mail to emergency personnel working on the rig, along with a list of all employees on the platform at that time. The oil rig's managers carry Identec handheld readers with a Wi-Fi connection to the back-end software, to read the badge of each employee they meet at the mustering sites, or while climbing into a lifeboat. The handheld lists all staff members who should be on the rig, with red icons next to each name. As each worker turns up at his appointed location and that individual's tag is read, the name itself changes from red to green. In that way, the oil rig's management can track anyone who has not reported for muster. If an employee turns up at a different mustering location or lifeboat, then once his tag is read by a different individual, that person's name will appear in yellow, indicating he has been accounted for but is not in his appointed zone.

The system also provides an alerting function, in case certain personnel are not allowed to enter specific areas. In such a scenario, an oil company could mount a video screen that would display a red warning if a reader at that zone were to detect the tag ID of an individual not permitted in that section. Such a display could also be used at mustering sites, to list the names of those who have reported, as well as those still missing.

In the case of ConocoPhillips' installation in the North Sea, the system has been used to locate personnel during emergencies, and has been tested during drills, says Emil Andersen, the IT business analyst for the company's Norwegian division. Each of the two centers is divided into zones, with an RFID portal situated at each zone's entrance or exit. Every time an individual with an RFID badge passes the portal, his or her location status is then updated in the Watcheroffshore system. "This system is now serving as our main preparedness application, and is used during exercises," Andersen states. "This enables us to gain control over personnel in an emergency situation much quicker and safer than a manual process does."

The oil company is currently in the process of deploying the solution on a third North Sea oil center that is adding two new platforms.

For the North American market, Identec's active tags and readers will transmit at 915 MHz, instead of at 868 MHz, as they do in Europe. Thus far, Wehus says, Identec has been in conversations with several oil companies regarding the system's potential use in North America, though no deployments are yet ready to be announced. For its part, ConocoPhillips reports that it has no plans to deploy the Watcheroffshore system in North America at this time.