Health, Safety & Environment

Critical communications: When safety and security are paramount

Offshore oil platform sunrise
Image: © Rohill/123RF

Phil Kidner, CEO of the TCCA, highlights the importance of safe and secure critical communications for oil and gas industry operations

In the oil and gas industry, safety and security are top priorities. Organisations in this sector operate in the most challenging environments, and they need communications that are designed to work to business-critical and mission-critical standards.

TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) is a communications technology standard specifically designed for mission-critical users, and is deployed throughout the world to help protect and secure people and property. TETRA users work for organisations involved in Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) and is also widely used in other sectors that rely on critical communications, such as air and ground transport, the utilities, mining, and – of course – oil and gas.

Robust and reliable, dedicated spectrum

There are countless implementations of TETRA networks for the oil and gas industry, where it is the preferred communications standard. Using its own dedicated spectrum, robust and reliable TETRA networks support comprehensive voice and data capabilities and deliver many benefits that assist oil and gas companies to improve their operations, and enhance the safety of their personnel.

Case Study: Hassi R’Mel, Algeria

The Hassi R’Mel Gas Field is one of the largest in the world, situated some 340 miles south of Algiers. The deployment of the TETRA network solution in an “unfriendly” environment was not easy. The company had to find solutions to unusual situations, including preventing the theft of solar panels providing power to the TETRA sites. Special freestanding masts had to be procured that could resist both strong sandstorms and thieves who stole cables from standard masts. Even obtaining authorisation for the frequencies proved a challenge, despite the field’s location in the desert.

However, in overcoming the difficulties, the main expectations of the TETRA network were as follows:

– To ensure the security of employees on the field by giving them PMR features access (push to talk, group calls, priorities, emergency calls, geolocation, voice and data, etc.);

– To monitor more than 200 pieces of equipment (via two SCADA systems) by using the radio network to connect the extractors and compressors to the central systems;

– To connect the two SCADA systems together by radio only;

– To equip the security teams watching the pipelines with radio devices able to communicate at long distance;

– To be able to locate all company vehicles and people;

– To link sub areas located many kilometres away to one single global solution;

– To connect all the users (people, vehicles and extractors) with the existing paging network, the PABX and other communication tools;

– To secure transport network with microwave links and optical/wired links providing mutual back-up.

The TETRA network helped to fulfill all of these requirements, and some evolutions are being discussed to enhance the current capabilities further. A lot has happened in the PMR world in recent years and TETRA can today be married up with newer or different technologies in order to improve efficiency, increase capabilities or simply find the right balance between costs and features.

The introduction of hybrid network elements enables wider usage of the TETRA network. These include: the use of a standard LTE core in order to improve connectivity with SCADA applications at higher rates, by using standard interfaces; connectivity with 3G/4G and WiFi; interfaces to the Internet and company intranet; and deployment of some broadband base stations in very sensitive areas in order to provide video capability.

In some cases, the use of base stations of different technologies (TETRA, DMR, analogue, LTE and paging) directly connected to a unique LTE core delivers one single network, working across technologies. This can avoid the feature limitations sometimes caused by gateways, and the use of full IP transport links simplifies the transport fall back modes.

The Hassi R’Mel implementation is a very good example of TETRA being connected to several SCADA systems and helping to increase both safety and production in a challenging environment.

Information courtesy of TCCA Member Etelm

By their very nature, oil and gas organisations operate in hazardous environments – in plants, refineries, and wellheads where the risk of explosions is always present, and intrinsically safe equipment must be in use.

The most widely known piece of legislation around intrinsically safe products is the EC ATEX directive. ATEX is a requirement in the EU, and has also been adopted by other regions of the world. TETRA radios with ATEX certification are widely used in the oil and gas industries where users face hazardous environments and the possible presence of explosive substances, dust and gases as the radios comply with rigorous safety requirements.

The TETRA market in the oil and gas industry is predicted to continue expanding, according to research by industry analysts IHS Markit.

Although a decrease in shipments may be seen in the near term due to the pressure on oil prices, IHS Markit sees the sector improving after this year, and predicts that the market for new ATEX terminals should revert to normal levels by 2020.

Open standards for an open market

This underlines the importance of an open standard such as TETRA over proprietary systems. Open standards catalyse an open market, sparking innovation and keeping prices competitive. This is critically important in times of economic challenge.

Case Study: Saudi Arabia

The Middle East is one of the most dynamic regions for the adoption and expansion of critical communications networks and services. Saudi Telecom (STC) subsidiary Bravo serves more than 160,000 subscribers for more than 3,000 customers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Bravo is beginning a programme of network replacement that underpins Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which is about optimisation, digitisation of different verticals and enhancing public/private partnerships. Bravo’s new mission-critical TETRA network is planned for completion by 2019.

Complementary mission-critical LTE, based on 3GPP Release 13, will be rolled out on a zone-by-zone basis according to customer needs, beginning in 2017. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has set out very high standards, mostly around TETRA functionality and the use of dedicated, highly resilient fully redundant networks, that must be met in order to serve critical sectors such as oil and gas.

“Mission critical communications is all about specific requirements such as spectrum flexibility, a full ecosystem of mobile broadband services as well as performance metrics that conventional networks are not able to meet,” said Dr Fahad Mushayt, CEO of Bravo.

“In the oil and gas sector, the need for critical communications is growing as a result of the need for reliable and robust networks, extended coverage, and advanced features mainly based on broadband. Oil and gas companies are looking for cost effective technologies that can cope with the existing and emerging needs of the industry – mainly flexibility, scalability, predictability, resilience and security. Oil and gas manufacturers in Saudi Arabia are subject to HCIS (Higher Commission for Industrial Security) Regulations, which impose certain parameters and guidelines.

“TETRA is still the only approved communication tool for oil and gas in the Kingdom, as per the HCIS requirements and guidelines. It currently provides the industry with all above mentioned requirements with exception to the growing need for broadband. We do not believe that TETRA will exit the Saudi market soon, it will at least continue supporting the different industries until the full capabilities of LTE release 13 are ready, including the intrinsically safe terminals.

“Due to increased pressure from end users (especially government, oil and gas and public safety entities) LTE standards development is moving fast. This has catalysed

TETRA vendors to develop new capabilities that build bridges with LTE broadband and provide TETRA features over LTE. The TETRA over LTE service will be of a great importance as it will provide extended reach for TETRA users across the country, while still enabling them to benefit from all the security and critical aspects of the network.”

Information courtesy of TCCA Member Bravo

There are other PMR standards, and there are communications standards that can work in tandem with TETRA. But they are not mission-critical; they provide complementary capabilities that enable users to tailor network services to suit their individual needs, while retaining the critical core TETRA network. Although there is much talk of mission-critical LTE, this is not yet a reality.

Consumer-focused networks are developed for maximum profit, not maximum resilience, so cannot normally offer the levels of availability required by mission- and business-critical organisations.

That said, the TCCA and other organisations with an interest in critical communications are working hard to ensure the requirements of mission-critical users are incorporated into the LTE standards for the future, and that spectrum is harmonised to ensure a wide and competitive market. We hope this will eventually enable broadband services to be delivered to mission-critical standards, thus increasing the scope for critical user applications. ■

Phil Kidner




From Adjacent Oil & Gas 5, November 2016


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