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Weatherford Laboratories' RFID Solution Reduces Risk of Losing Offshore Earth Samples

The company is offering the system, developed in partnership with JPL RFID, to its oil and gas customers, to ensure that samples from a drill site can be tracked.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 15, 2015

Weatherford Laboratories, a provider of rock and fluid analysis services for the oil and gas industry, is tracking earth samples via radio frequency identification as they move from the laboratory's warehouse to an offshore drill ship, and then back to the lab for testing and storage. The system was piloted this year on a single drill ship; based on the results of that trial, Weatherford is now offering the solution to other customers. The technology, provided by Houston asset-management software company JPL RFID, reduces the potential for loss of materials extracted for the lab's analysis, while saving man hours previously spent searching for missing samples, or counting and identifying samples as they move from the drill rig to the lab.

The lab sends thousands of empty sample containers to offshore drilling customers, who then fill those bags, bottles or canisters with samples of core material (rock) or fluids extracted from a drilling rig. They can check those samples for the presence of oil, among other features, in order to determine if the location would make a lucrative site for the oil and gas company.

Traditionally, these samples are not individually tracked, explains Sara Johnston, Weatherford Laboratories' well-site special projects manager. Instead, bottles, metal cylinders and plastic bags filled with sample material are simply sent in estimated required numbers, and oil-rig workers known as mud loggers fill them. Rig personnel note the depth at which the samples were taken and send them back to the lab. That means, however, that the samples can become lost during the shipping process, and that if they are moved into storage, they could later be very difficult to locate.

Johnston says many customers have described occasionally experiencing a loss of samples in large volumes. "We had a client that had lost a 30-foot piece of core," she adds, while smaller samples can end up missing even more frequently. Manual audits are often performed by oil and gas companies, or by Weatherford Labs personnel. However, she explains, standard protocol does not include audits. "Onsite personnel, such as mud loggers or other individuals handling the samples, would be the ones responsible for capturing, packaging and shipping the samples to wherever the client wants them to go, such as storage or lab analysis," she says.

"There are expectations of how many samples come back from the rig," Johnston states, adding that manual audits take a lot of time to perform. "It can be a month or longer to know that samples are getting lost."

Weatherford Labs' solution employs EPC ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive RFID tags to track each sample extracted and transported to the company's testing facility. The firm initially considered using bar-code labels to identify the containers, but found that bar codes would not easily withstand the rigors of the offshore oil rig environment, and could be too dirty or damaged to be read. Scanning bar codes, Johnston says, would also be time–consuming, since the lab can receive hundreds or thousands of samples at a time.

Once the company decided on an RFID solution, it worked with JPL RFID to identify the most effective tags, as well as the best placement and orientation, to obtain the necessary read range. The companies then conducted a pilot.

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