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OilComm is making a big comeback in 2019. Attendance is up. Enthusiasm is way up. And, for the first time in a long time, oil and gas industry attendees from both the software/IT and operational sides of the business are eager to invest — to keep themselves at the forefront of the Industry 4.0 movement. Even members of Congress from both sides of the aisle – U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-7) are joining in on the OilComm conversation.

“The attendee list for OilComm 2019 is shaping up to be the most dynamic group of thought leaders and decision makers in the oil and gas telecommunications industry,” says Rigstar Industrial Telecom president Rick Sperandio, who serves on the event’s advisory board. “As such, the conference attendance is expected to have the best mix of end users, industry leaders, and decision makers that OilComm has seen in years.”

Sperandio suggests that prospective attendees mark their calendars for the “Building the Facility of the Future: Blank Check and a Dream” session, during which panelists from global designers and operators of world-class facilities will discuss their vision of how the next generation of technology will shape the industry. “It’s always a must-see at OilComm.”

For the past five years, the Houston-based oil and gas telecommunications technology event has navigated through a series of storms — a rapid oil price drop in 2015, a wave of oil and gas industry layoffs a year later, and a literal storm, Hurricane Harvey, in 2017. During this time, the industry has also experienced a significant cultural shift. What was once dangerous, dirty, hands-on, hard labor has transformed into all-digital, completely networked and automated convenience. Working on a rig is now a remote experience. It’s safer, and more cost efficient.

The “digital oilfield” is no longer a future vision. It’s the present reality. The world’s first narrowband-Internet of Things (IoT)-powered oil and gas platforms are already online. Sensors have been deployed, along with a vast array of analysis, data storage, and visualization tools. “Over the coming decade, the value of digitalization will continue to increase as companies explore new accessible technology to improve work processes, increase the staff welfare and platform safety,” says Arnt Skavdal, CTO of Tampnet, a company which has launched IoT oil platforms in the North Sea.

Data is now regarded as a corporate asset and it’s perhaps even more valuable than the oil itself. “Big Data” is helping to revitalize the oil and gas industry, but the data revolution encompassing machine learning and data analytics can also be extracted and mined to increase productivity and optimize IT capital asset efficiencies, according to Rheidiant CEO Murat Ocalan. “As industrial plant applications of IoT technologies are being rapidly adopted, their applications on larger scale infrastructure has been lagging. Until recently, connecting new devices for data and power had significantly different cost drivers in industrial plants and remote assets. This is no longer the case with new connectivity technologies and protocols, including narrowband-IoT. Now, a low power device in remote locations can be deployed in a cost-effective manner and enable a host of new applications.” Interest in private LTE networks has increased dramatically over the past year. LTE Narrowband IoT is a cellular standard that aims to provide extremely low cost, long range communications to thousands of remote devices. “Commercial deployment functions differently than a typical public cellular carrier, however, and can cause issues if not established properly,” says Justin Wallace, a senior project manager at BP, who is speaking on an LTE panel at OilComm. “For many of the operators, LTE is the answer to a wide-array of their needs, providing enough connectivity for both dependable communications and the latest 4.0 technologies currently being implemented.”

Even the vertically aligned satellite specialists, such as RigNet, are also looking to capitalize on the energy sector’s data driven movement by launching boutique divisions. “As companies attempt to seize the value of big data in today’s energy environment, many are still trying to understand how powerful AI-based analytics can provide insights for delivering better business decisions,” says Ricardo Clemente, vice president of business development with RigNet and co-founder and executive director for RigNet’s new Intelie division. “At Intelie, we’re offering a suite of machine-learning based applications for oil and gas with an end-to-end process view. This approach yields better insights and assists with the industry’s cultural shift to become an insight-driven, analytically empowered enterprise.”

Satellite connectivity remains a critical part of completing the oil and gas industry’s global connectivity fabric and remains the only viable option for operations on the mobile frontier. Satellite technology and hardware is rapidly evolving and industry suppliers have a whole new portfolio of products lined up for their oil and gas customers.

Year-over-year, reports from top mobile operators show the numbers of mobile devices and IoT-enabled devices increasing among their enterprise and oil and gas clients. Tapping into the world’s available supply of satellite spectrum allows energy companies to access to more connectivity options.

“Hybrid connectivity solutions that leverage both cellular and satellite networks are ideal for fleet management and transportation, as the solution can connect to cellular networks in urban areas and transition to satellite networks when the cellular networks become unavailable,” says Bill Marks, Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) of Kymeta, which is providing the oil and gas industry with hybrid solutions using flat-panel antenna technology.

Satellite and hybrid cellular-satellite solutions have been proven to work in situations ranging from fleet management and monitoring of remote energy centers to disaster relief. One example is the SmartBus project involving Kymeta, Airbus, the World Bank, and TEPSA. The SmartBus fleet, enabled with a hybrid solution, provides Wi-Fi connectivity to passengers and collects data about the terrain across a 742 kilometer (km) route through both urban and rural areas of Peru.

“Satellite connectivity solutions are the most effective way to the oil and gas industry up-to-date with the most efficient digital technologies,” says Marks. “Satellite and hybrid cellular-satellite solutions help quickly transmit real-time data and analytics to provide efficient control of remote sites most used by oil and gas facilities. These solutions take advantage of both hardware and software to maximize efficiency. Satellite connectivity solutions are the most effective way to the oil and gas industry up-to-date with the most efficient digital technologies.”

FMC GlobalSat CEO Emmanuel Cotrel highlights the advent of software-steered Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) antennas as a critical technical breakthrough for the oil and gas market. “It reduces the complexity of satellite communications,” Cotrel says. “It eliminates the need for sensitive gyroscopic controls. These antennas are virtually maintenance-free and require little setup effort. These flexible solutions also improve reliability to ensure mission critical machine-to-machine and IoT services remain online at the highest levels of performance.”

VSAT has a long history in the oil and gas industry. Brad Smith, manager of land mobile sales at Cobham Satcom, says that, over time, as companies have become increasingly dependent on a reliable data connection and are using more data than previously, VSAT antennas have evolved to meet those needs.

“New technology has increased the effectiveness of VSAT antennas,” says Smith. “Smaller aperture sizes now provide the same result that large antennas were previously needed for, providing higher bandwidth without increasing the cost of doing business. At the same time, the introduction of stabilization in small drive-away antennas has enabled the industry to operate smaller vehicles without outriggers, enabling swift deployment and reducing installation cost.”

Maintenance and repair costs have also gone down as antenna designs have become more resilient against the harsh environments that are characteristic for the oil and gas industry. “These technological advances have created an industry-wide movement towards smaller, more effective VSAT systems, making cost-efficient satellite communication available to more companies within oil and gas, enabling the digital oilfield,” says Smith.

Mobile satellite operator Inmarsat has also launched new services for oil and gas that focus on cost efficiencies. The company just completed the roll-out of a digital base platform to over 5,000 vessels in a 30-month period. “This platform, called FX, utilizes Ka-band as primary and L-band as backup, both provided by a single network operator who owns and manages both networks - an industry exclusive,” says Inmarsat Director of Maritime and Energy Chuck Moseley. “FX is a managed service with emphasis on digital transformation. In addition to the platform, we have introduced security, IoT, crew comfort, charterer and other additional services which enable a vessel owner/operator to move towards a digital vessel without involving or managing multiple vendors and multiple boxes. We think this presents a satellite-driven, faster, easier, less CapEx intensive path to digitalization.”

As with any rapid expansion or expansion of virtualized technologies, the change also brings new challenges in securing networks. And, cybersecurity remains one of the top discussion topics at OilComm. The oil and gas industry’s “attack surface” (or, area of vulnerability) is increasing, as industrial systems in energy plants and oil fields become more digitalized. Cisco Oil and Gas Industry Lead Jared Carter explains that this digital transformation has required oil and gas companies to use more common hardware, software and protocols.

“Segmentation is a critical step towards security and needs to be performed as a baseline activity, but it won't be sufficient to protect against more advanced threats, such as malware aimed at control devices,” says Carter. “Industrial systems must have tools that make visibility possible, so that baselines can be created for the devices, applications and traffic flows that exist in the Operational Technology (OT) environment. Without these baselines, it will be impossible to detect anomalies when a breach occurs.”

As global trade wars intensify, industrial sabotage becomes a more appealing option to hostile actors. Hackers will seek out vulnerable touchpoints within these new oil and gas IoT networks. Carter says that vulnerabilities have been identified where people and their devices interact with OT. “Engineering and technician laptops, for example, are a threat for delivering malware and worms into operations. Protecting these systems must be a part of an oil and gas operator’s overall approach to cybersecurity,” says Carter. “Although core OT apps will likely remain on premise for many years, some apps are quickly moving to the cloud. Industrial customers must be ready when this scenario becomes a reality.”

Damon Small, technical director of security consulting at NCC Group North America, loves this stuff. It’s why he continues to serve on the OilComm advisory board. “Attendees should be excited, not concerned, about an increase in content regarding information security and emerging technologies, both of which are transforming the industry,” he says. “The topic brings the industry together with people like James Morrison from the FBI’s cyber task force and Ken Munro from Pen Test Partners (who is live-hacking an oil rig at OilComm), for a shared mission. We’re all invested in protection strategies for our supply chains, from the IT specialists to the operational leaders at drilling companies.”

Paul Brager, a digital product security leader at Baker Hughes, will take over Small’s task last year of moderating the panel that brings IT and OT professionals on stage to discuss how to best handle the network security detail. “This year, the conversation moves beyond just the convergence of IT and OT in the oil and gas world,” he says. “We have to stay ahead of threats by focusing on cooperation. We’ll have perspectives from Chief Information System Officers (CISOs), upstream operations as well as shipping industry representatives participating in this talk. It will definitely be interesting.” VS