Standardised technologies for secure real-time drilling data

Direct Automation Pty Ltd
By Gregory Hale*
Tuesday, 08 July, 2014

With potentially billions of dollars at stake, reliable and secure real-time drilling data is one of the most important requirements for oil and gas drillers today.

Today, oil and gas exploration companies are in the situation where easy exploration is no longer possible. Now they must not only use more sophisticated technologies to take advantage of business intelligence and identify profit opportunities upstream, but they must also employ cost-effective ways to send that information to decision-makers. Using proprietary software and custom solutions with every engagement is no longer economically feasible, and so there is a need to move towards an industry specification that enables interoperability, security, performance, reliability, cost and affordability. While workers pull oil from the ground upstream, everyone within the organisation must be in sync to achieve business objectives from the ground all the way to the fuel pump.

In order to improve security and efficiency, drillers are seeking a secure connection to speed up application deployment by cutting out manual processes and unrelated management systems. One challenge they face is how to decrease complexity and costs while ensuring an integrated network that allows for secure data transfer.

These days companies need information quickly and efficiently before, during and after drilling operations. They also need to move the massive amount of data collected securely between all disparate systems. By ensuring decision-makers will be able to collect, analyse and put data in the proper context, companies can make accurate and timely decisions.

The ‘Night Dragon’ attacks that started in November 2009 demonstrate the need for more security. Hackers were able to access oil companies’ systems and steal information including financial documents related to oil and gas field exploration and bid negotiations, in addition to operational details on oil and gas field production Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. That attack emphasised that security must be strong from the field all the way through the enterprise.

Big gains from real-time drilling data

Drilling for oil or gas is a science, and with an incredible amount of money on the line, people need to make the right decisions in real time.

Most wells today are directional, which does not mean that they are straight up and down - instead, they hit a specific spot and then level from an angle at great distances. To reach this level, a rig must drill the hole while a measurement-while-drilling (MWD) tool provides directional information and an electronic data recorder (EDR) monitors the operation.

The MWD tool is an electronic down-hole tool capable of gathering telemetric and formation data at the point of contact and then transmitting it up the hole during drilling operations. This allows the rig to steer in real time. The EDR system consists of sensors, data acquisitions, computers and a database. It acquires data from a large number of rig sensors, displays it to the rig crew and other parties, and then stores it in a database.

From the beginning, it is a challenge to get the MWD data and transmit it securely to the EDR system so the crew can easily see the real-time telemetric and formation data and make steering and drilling decisions. That is where the Wellsite Information Transfer Specification (WITS) comes into play. This protocol provides a simple link that allows the MWD systems to transmit data to the EDR system in real time.

The WITS protocol has multiple communication levels. The Level 0 specification provides a real-time connectivity standard for sharing information between MWD down-hole drilling devices and systems that support the WITS protocol. Taking advantage of this data in a SCADA system involves developing a suite of WITS Level 0 communication drivers that provide the ability to easily transfer down-hole drilling measurements to HMI, SCADA and OPC Client applications.

Bidirectional communication

The MWD tool gathers drilling-related measurements down-hole and then digitally transmits the data to the surface using mud pulser telemetry or other advanced technologies, such as electromagnetic frequency communications or a wired drill pipe. MWD systems take several measurements vital to drilling operations, such as gamma ray, compass direction, drill bit direction, borehole pressure, temperature, vibration, shock, torque and so forth.

WITS allows the transfer of this well site drilling data from one computer system to another through the use of a fixed format ASCII data stream consisting of discrete data records. Each data record type generates independently of the others. Each type also has a unique trigger variable and sampling interval.

The communication goes two ways because WITS incorporates the ability for a remote computer system to send instructions to the sending system to set or change certain parameters, including the type of data transmitted and the interval for transmission. WITS drivers therefore need to support bidirectional communications where the driver can read from or write to the WITS data stream through OPC or any of the other client interfaces available on the SCADA platform.

In addition, there is another specification making the rounds - Wellsite Information Transfer Standard Markup Language (WITSML). WITSML is an industry initiative to provide open, non-proprietary, standard interfaces that allow instrumentation and software to work together to monitor and manage wells, completions and work overs.

While the goal of WITS and WITSML is essentially the same, the technology is not. WITS uses a binary file format for transferring well site drilling data. WITSML is web based and built on XML technology, which is platform and language independent.

Example cases

Oil giant Chevron uses the latest digital technologies in its mission control centres to focus on utilising real-time data to make collaborative decisions in drilling operations, or in managing wells and imaging reservoirs, for higher production yields. The company’s goal is simple: they want to improve performance and increase productivity and profitability. By using such technologies at these mission control centres, the company thinks it will save $1 billion a year.

Proprietary systems that operate in the field have gone the way of the typewriter. With separate companies often working together in a drilling operation, the only previous consistency in their communication systems was there was no consistency. In the effort to determine how to transfer data with each other, the partners were always starting from scratch. It took time to create new software, test it and then debug it before the two firms’ data collection and analysis systems could communicate. It not only wasted time, but it was also expensive and typically lost data.

With WITS, drillers are able to quickly connect, communicate and collect data to make real-time decisions that can save time and money. They need a flexible and scalable solution to connect, manage, monitor and control devices and software. They also need to manage communications through a robust platform that supports open standards such as OPC, DDE and ODBC and proprietary communication interfaces, protocols and APIs. Supporting these open standards and proprietary communications improves operations and enables better decision-making through all levels of the organisation.

Imagine the communications challenges for a project like Exxon Mobil’s complex Sakhalin-1 Project in the Arctic. Exxon Neftegas Limited (ENL), a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp, is the operator of the Sakhalin-1 Project located offshore from Sakhalin Island. Partners include the Japanese company Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Co Ltd; subsidiaries of Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, RN-Astra and Sakhalinmorneftegas-Shelf; and Indian state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd.

The first phase of Sakhalin-1 consisted of an onshore drilling rig with extended reach wells and an offshore drilling and production platform. At 70 m tall, the Chayvo land-based drilling rig named Yastreb is the largest and most powerful land rig in the industry, designed to withstand earthquakes and severe Arctic temperatures.

Yastreb drilled down and then horizontally under the sea floor for more than seven miles, making this extended-reach well one of the longest in the world. Extended-reach wells reduce development costs and minimise marine impacts by avoiding the need for additional offshore structures.

Everyone on the same page

While the Sakhalin-1 Project may be extreme, it just goes to show how important communications are in all aspects of the operation. With major companies working on the same project, it is vital to get the data out to the partners. One of the major challenges faced by exploration and production companies is receiving multiple types of information every day from different directions and sources. It is not always easy to retrieve this data on demand, and in some cases, it never reaches the recipient because it is misfiled or lost.

With the common consortia of oil and gas companies working at drilling sites today, each joint venture partner demands timely information on progress so operational and financial decisions can be made. Time is money. The operating company needs to have a reliable, efficient and consistent way to distribute information. This often puts pressure on operating company staff at critical times. Instead of searching for the information, operators would rather be analysing the data.

It all starts and ends with the product energy companies are pulling out of the ground. The need remains simple: pull timely and accurate data from the site, put it into context and then get it in the right hands. This need is simple for sure, but the complexity of the tools is becoming greater. The end result means more energy, more product and more profit - all in real time.

*Gregory Hale is the editor/founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (

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