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Why Deepwater Oil Drillers Face Challenges from Outer Space

To tap into the world’s offshore oil reserves, you need to travel to some pretty remote locations – and be willing to go still farther once you get there. Today’s ultra-deepwater drillships sail to the far corners of Earth and then plunge equipment down as much as two miles to the ocean floor to begin drilling./wp-content/uploads/2014/12/273880_l_srgb_s_gl_600858.jpg

It’s incredibly demanding work, but this is business as usual for the Houston-based Vantage Drilling Company.

Vantage Drilling – an international offshore drilling contractor – operates one of the most modern fleets of drillships and high-specification jackups in the industry. These drilling rigs are marvels of innovation.

The 781-foot Tungsten Explorer, for example, can carry tons of specialized drilling equipment and a crew of 200 to virtually anywhere on the planet. And once the ship reaches its destination, computer-controlled dynamic positioning allows it to maintain a steady position over a single fixed point on the ocean bottom.

22,000 Miles Above the Rigs

The Tungsten Explorer is designed for drilling operations down to 40,000 feet and in water depths to 12,000 feet. But the miles of water, sand, and shale below the crew’s feet aren’t the only distances that affect the operations of this offshore oil rig.

Just look up. About 22,000 miles up . . . up into outer space. That’s where the geostationary satellites used for Internet connections are located.

“Because of our remote locations, we rely on satellites to communicate with the offshore oil rigs and the land-based stations that support them,” says Jay Marqua, Chief Information Officer at Vantage Drilling, “this includes connecting with the company’s business systems.”

And as Marqua will tell you, latency is an issue with any satellite communication. It takes about 1,000 to 1,400 milliseconds for an Internet packet to make a round trip to the satellite and back to Earth. It might not sound like a lot of time, but with the potential for hundreds of round trips in a standard transaction, that time adds up.

“We are landing data traffic in Southeast Asia and West Africa and sending it halfway around the world to our server in Phoenix, Arizona,” explains Marqua. “Even a simple screen refresh can be slow and choppy, but to bring up a work order and perform a query could take seven minutes.”

What’s more, latency is only one of the potential communication problems. Bad weather or a moving crane on the ship’s deck can disrupt the satellite signal and result in dropped connectivity. Add to that the possibilities of poor Internet infrastructures, limited local carriers, and an unreliable power grid.

As Marqua puts it, “Stable communications just don’t exist in some remote locations.”

Conquering Distances with Innovation

Vantage Drilling, however, is good at overcoming the challenges of remote locations and long distances. In fact, the company recently partnered with its software vendor SAP to co-innovate on a way to ensure system availability from anywhere and all the time – like on an oil rig off the coast of Gabon during a storm.

The new transaction availability for remote sites solution extends standard SAP applications and transactions by using a local SAP SQL Anywhere server onboard the rig. Remote workers using the software are actually interacting with this database. In the background, MobiLink technology automatically synchronizes the data with the SAP server back in Arizona.

As a result, onboard users experience local area network speeds and always have complete access to system functionality, even when the application is disconnected.

Vantage Drilling has rolled out the solution to all seven of the company’s rigs. These implementations – which address the specific needs of the company’s maintenance supervisors and senior offshore materials coordinators – involve about 100 standard SAP application transactions used in plant maintenance, material management, and inventory.

Deepwater Inspiration

Marqua is pleased with the results. But he would like more functionality incorporated in the future, and he doesn’t believe this technology is limited to oil and gas. “I see opportunities for this solution in many other industries and especially in emerging markets.”

Offshore drilling has its share of challenges. At the ocean floor, operations take place in near-freezing temperatures and crushing pressures. In remote onboard workspaces, spotty communications can hamper even the most routine business processes.

But it seems that these trying conditions are also the perfect environment for inspiring innovation.

Look for more information about the transaction availability for remote sites solution coming from SAP soon. And please join me on Twitter @JohnGWard3.

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