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Active UHF RFID Tags Muster Support for Oil Rigs

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.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 15, 2010In 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.

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