Rugged Tags Survive Deep-Sea Test

By Beth Bacheldor

Passive RFID tags deployed at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for four months continued to operate once retrieved, according to the technology's developer, Wescorp Energy.

Wescorp Energy, a manufacturer of systems designed to help companies in the oil and gas industry manage and track their operations and equipment, has completed a test of passive UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID tags that were affixed to equipment deployed at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, 12,000 feet beneath the surface, for four months in late 2007. When the tags were retrieved, the company claims, handheld interrogators were still able to read each tag's unique ID number.

The test was part of Wescorp's ongoing development of its Intelligent Field Resource Management (IFRM) solution. Announced about six months ago, the service is an RFID-driven solution designed to help companies track their industrial and oil-field equipment.

Scott Shemwell

"The service answers the three most important questions those in oil and gas field operations and maintenance (O&M) have about this equipment: What do I have? When did I get it? Where is it?" explains Scott Shemwell, Wescorp's chief operating officer. "These three questions are the heart of operations and maintenance concerns regarding expensive equipment and scarce material. Whether the field superintendent or the chief operating officer, decision makers are faced with significant global challenges when it comes to field operations."

At present, many companies typically attempt to answer these questions and track that information via such manual processes as writing down metrics and equipment information on paper, or perhaps keying the data into a spreadsheet. Bar codes have not proven useful in tracking equipment, Shemwell says, because they are often rubbed off during equipment usage or painted over during maintenance—two scenarios that render bar codes unreadable.

The IFRM service employs what's known as "fit-for-purpose" technology—typically a combination of technologies put together to meet a specific need, and to optimize overall drilling efficiency. Wescorp's engineers assess a customer's O&M requirements, then configure the technology to meet those needs. During the assessment, Shemwell says, the engineers analyze the company's operational challenges, then design and implement agreed-upon solutions, developing operations and maintenance processes, as well as designing, fabricating, installing, operating and maintaining the systems necessary to optimize oil and gas field performance.

Configuration and customization involve determining and tailoring the RFID tags, including picking the best frequency for the job, and can extend to a company's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, so that software can receive and act on data collected by the RFID-enabled service. Designed to be secure and unique to each customer, the solution comes with a Web-enabled information gathering and sharing system that companies can utilize to access data about their equipment.

For the months-long test, Wescorp attached two RFID tags—pretested to withstand 8,000 psi—to the submersible sensors of two precision sonobuoys, and placed the sensors at the bottom of the gulf. Precision sonobuoys include a floating radio transmitter, Shemwell explains, and are used to position subsurface remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) employed in the construction and maintenance of deepwater offshore oil and gas facilities. "Wescorp had these tags specifically designed, engineered and manufactured to operate in this extreme environment," he says.

According to Shemwell, these tags were designed by an RFID engineering company for extreme environments, and were built to industry standards. Wescorp worked with the firm to seal the tags in a plastic casing so they would meet the quality standards necessary to withstand the hostile, remote and heavy-industrial environments typical encountered by the oil and gas industry. For instance, the tag would need to remain operational immersed in salt water and subjected to 8,000 psi of pressure while more than 3,000 meters deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to submersion, Wescorp employed a handheld Motorola RFID interrogator to read the tags. After a period of time, the sensors were pulled out of the water and their tags read once more. When the buoys were retrieved, Shemwell says, the tags were in "excellent" condition and readable. He claims the test results did not indicate any changes or enhancements that need to be made to the RFID tags, and says Wescorp is proceeding forward with marketing the tags and the IFRM service to track equipment in extremely harsh environments, both on land (in places such as northern Canada) and below the water's surface.

For underwater deployments, Wescorp's RFID system would allow companies to monitor the status of their equipment. An onboard interrogator would read the tags of equipment prior to underwater deployment, and again after the gear has been retrieved and loaded on board the vessel. The tags would also be read when the equipment was off-loaded on land or at another offshore location, enabling operators to track the location of the items, which can cost thousands of dollars each.

Wescorp says it already has several customers using, or planning to use, its IFRM service and RFID tags to track underwater equipment. Among them are partner Ellycrack, a Norwegian research firm focused on developing technology that converts heavy oil to a lighter, more commercially viable oil.

According to Shemwell, several other companies—which he is unable to name at this time—also utilize the service or plan to do so. These include one company that expects to employ the RFID tags to manage equipment and material in an oil sands project in northern Canada; another that intends to use the technology to better manage critical equipment utilization by assuring certifications are up-to-date and equipment is available for the job, and fit for the work expected of it; and a third firm planning to use RFID to help manage underwater rental equipment.

Going forward, Shemwell says, "Wescorp is aggressively working with a number of the major players in oil and gas offshore production to deliver these solutions worldwide."