WellAware Rolls Out On-Ramp Wireless M2M Platform

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The data services company says On-Ramp Wireless offers a sensor communication technology that beats out competing options on cost and reliability.

With oil prices slumping, producers in the United States are seeking ways in which to improve efficiencies and reduce costs. To help them along, San Antonio-based WellAware offers a technology platform consisting of sensors and communication networks that enable oil and gas companies to prioritize their inspection operations while reducing the labor and resources needed to carry out safety checks. WellAware announced this week that it is now providing On-Ramp Wireless' long-range, lower-power communication network hardware and connectivity to its oil and gas customers operating across 55,000 square miles of the most active U.S. oil and gas fields. Those fields generate more than 50 percent of total U.S. production, according to WellAware.

WellAware's executive VP, Dave Milam, says his company is integrating On-Ramp Wireless' Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) network technology into its products and services, because RPMA provides a means of reliably collecting sensor data over long distances, at low cost and with high reliability. In order to work with communication networks in which its customers may have already invested, WellAware's platform also supports satellite, cellular and 900 MHz supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) platforms, used for remotely controlling equipment and collecting sensor data. "You have to be able to support what the customer needs," Milam says. "But we've built the RPMA networks over oil and gas shale areas where the majority of U.S. [oil and gas] production is coming from."

Dave Milam

Based in San Diego, Calif., On-Ramp Wireless was founded in 2008 and has customers in the oil and gas sector, as well as the utilities industry. Its Random Phase Multiple Access technology, so-named because it enables thousands of devices to share one radio channel, was purpose-built for transmitting data over a wide area while consuming low power. RPMA uses a proprietary RF modulation scheme and transmits data over the 2.4 GHz band. An end node, integrated with a sensor via a serial peripheral interface, can transmit up to 100 kilobytes of data per day at an average distance of 25 miles (this varies widely based on geography and structures that may block the RF signal, in some cases nodes can be read from up to 50 miles).

The access points, which are generally mounted high in the air, often on an existing cellular antenna tower, can communicate with each other over a star topology. This means that they can transmit data from all of the nodes within an area spanning hundreds of square miles to a central server via a backhaul—a cellular or satellite connection—through a single access point. The battery in an RPMA node can last for up to 20 years.

A typical oil field might have up to 1,000 wells, Milam says, and might be equipped with as many as 10,000 individual sensors. These sensors, which may be wired or wireless, are used for everything from utilizing sonar to estimate the quantity of chemicals within a holding tank, to monitoring flow rates or looking for signs of corrosion inside a pipe. In many cases, oil producers dispatch workers to manually collect data from these sensors, but due to the high labor and fuel cost that this entails—not to mention slow response times to safety problems—a growing number of producers, as well as pipeline companies, are turning to automated, machine-to-machine (M2M) systems (also known as digital oilfield technology) to collect sensor data remotely and help operators prioritize their dispatching operations.

Traditionally, operators could choose between transmitting this data using cellular modems or satellite networks. A third option was for the operator to build a SCADA system of transceivers operating at 900 MHz.

"The cellular option has been around for a while," Milam says, "but if you look at where there is really good cellular coverage, it's around people and highways, and often in the oil and gas industry, that is opposite of where oil wells are."

"Then the operators have the choice to build their own dedicated 900 MHz system, but that is typically a big outlay of capital," Milam states. "One of our customers spent $7 million constructing a 900 MHz communication network for 250 wells. And then they had to maintain the network themselves. These guys are experts at getting hydrocarbons out of the ground—not in maintaining networks."

The security of data transmission using SCADA networks is also a concern, according to Milam, who cites Dell's 2015 Security Annual Report, in which the company reported twice as many cyber attacks on SCADA systems in 2014 than during the previous year.

"With satellite-based communications, you can get coverage anywhere," Milam says, "but monthly recurring expenses, at the level of bandwidth that oil wells require, are in excess of $100 per month, per well." In an RPMA deployment, the company can use access points to collect data from hundreds of wells, but pay for only a single satellite modem for data backhaul.

WellAware provides the On-Ramp Wireless hardware and network connectivity as a service to its customers, and Milam says the technology has proven to be nearly 100 percent reliable. With other M2M communication platforms, he notes, customers are "lucky to get over 90 percent" reliability. Given the safety and business ramifications of missing an important event in an oil field or on a pipeline, he adds, "missing one in 10 alerts is not good enough."

With oil prices falling, Milam argues that now is a good time for oil and gas companies to invest in automated sensory data collection. When prices were high, he explains, businesses could afford to deploy more employees to perform system checks operations with growing footprints. But as prices fall, he says, "they won't be able to afford to throw people at problem."

Fewer manual processes should also translate into fewer accidents. An estimated 105,000 gallons of oil spilled on California's coast, near Goleta, this week from a pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline. The pipeline was inspected just two weeks ago, but the inspection results had not yet been received before the rupture, said Darren Palmer, Plains' district manager, at a news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.