By Steve Fleischmann, V.P. Business Development, Pixel Velocity and Jonathan Murray, CEO, Pixel Velocity

Published October 10, 2019

The oil and gas industry is continuously looking for operational efficiencies to reduce costs, improve profits, and improve safety practices. One approach is to use video and audio, in addition to other sensors, to monitor remote locations. Video and audio can provide 24/7 “eyes-on” and “ears-on” access to remote sites, eliminating unneeded visits and the associated costs and risks.

By enabling more sites to be managed by the same number of workers, remote monitoring can drive profitability in times of volatile oil prices and labor market tightness. Several approaches to deploying remote video and audio are available. How will companies choose?

Managing Video in Remote Locations

Two key factors to consider are: how bandwidth is managed and how data are controlled.

Many remote oil and gas production sites are connected only by cellular networks with scarce bandwidth that is used for competing purposes. Video is bandwidth-intensive—it can consume 30-40 times the bandwidth of textual or numeric data—and can crowd out other uses. The way in which bandwidth is managed has profound implications for how video data are controlled—who has possession of it in what environment.

There are basically three ways to manage video in remote oil and gas production environments: 1. Live streaming; 2. Sending it to the Cloud; or 3. Managing sensor data on site. Let’s consider all three choices.

Live Streaming Video

Traditional Video Management Systems (VMS) deliver “live-stream” video. This is a very developed approach that will be familiar to security teams. These systems were designed for applications like detecting physical security breaches on large sites. A VMS works well in handling the output of dozens or hundreds of optical sensors, usually routed to a control center, when bandwidth is ample. Video output is projected onto screens and viewed by people—whether the customer does the monitoring or outsources the work. The assumption enabling these systems is that high-throughput bandwidth infrastructure, like fiber optic cabling, is available for live streaming. Large manned facilities – the ones that will stay manned — likely have something like this in place today.

Bandwidth may not be ample in remote locations, however. Cellular networks may have restricted capacity and competing uses. Carrier data plans may have caps; exceeding these may result in traffic throttling or large, unexpected surcharges. Video solutions that rely on live streaming may perform well in proofs-of-concept, but fail when used at scale. Even a couple of dozen cameras live streaming video could bring a network to its knees or force a network provider to throttle traffic. Security teams normally don’t see these downsides at big manned sites, and may reach for what they have used before to outfit remote sites.

Sending Video to the Cloud

Another way to manage video in remote locations is to send it into the Cloud. This typically is the approach taken by managed service providers. Most leverage a form of VMS technology and add network and storage. These providers own and install the cameras, servers, network and other physical infrastructure required for remote monitoring, plus providing a monitored control center, for a high monthly service fee. The fee includes the cost of hardware ownership, software, network management, financing and bandwidth – although costs for these components aren’t often detailed.

In some cases, managed service solutions depend on the customers’ own data plans for live streaming video, which can lead to unexpected charges or bandwidth throttling. Some managed service providers also charge for storing data in the cloud, where it is, theoretically, stored permanently—racking up storage expenses.

Managed solutions add one more problem, who controls video data? When managed service providers live-stream video to the cloud, customers lose control over it. Customers may be able to dial into the vendors’ system to look at the video, but the vendor has possession. They can use it for their own purposes, or disclose it to third parties (see 3.2 Data stored at an offsite provider’s location is fully discoverable in litigation. Read those service agreements.

One objective for managed service providers is to use customer videos to develop other products using machine learning or artificial intelligence or computer vision. They’ll charge customers for the insights gleamed from their own videos, and sell those insights to competitors, too. Each customer will have to determine if the insights are worth the risks of permanently losing control of video of sensitive operations.

Edge Computing: Managing Video on Site

A third approach to using video to reduce visits to remote oil and gas production sites is to manage video at the edge. Edge computing enables sensor data to be controlled on site while also managing a key emerging issue with 5g networks: How to avoid moving data needlessly. The vast majority of video is inert—it shows nothing. Paying to move and store it is unnecessary. In edge computing, video is managed, stored, and purged on a server on site, instead of being live streamed and stored in a data center.

The application software that provides edge management is designed to optimize bandwidth and use metadata to deliver event information. Alerts with an attached video clip are routed to specific operators—a tap on the shoulder of the right operator who is likely busy somewhere else—without live streaming video. Once alerted, operators can access sensors in real time, but live streaming is greatly reduced to enable scaling across sites connected by nearly any variety of bandwidth.

Edge solutions are getting a long look. Edge software is purpose-built for controlling and managing video and other sensor data on the distant edge of networks, across sites connected by cellular networks with scarce bandwidth. Software on an edge gateway can work seamlessly at high speed across constrained bandwidth environments—with no loss of control over any of the data. In many cases, edge computing is a superior alternative to live streaming.

For decades, SCADA data provided useful information about operations on remote oil and gas production sites, but it was never enough to replace all site visits. Getting to the fewest site visits possible is the key to scaling workforces now. Edge solutions are the fastest to deploy and can provide 24/7 “eyes/ears-on” at sites without massive infrastructure upgrades, with future flexibility to support advances in sensors and software while retaining control over increasingly valuable operations data. In a volatile price environment, permanent cost elimination today is necessary to ensure profitability tomorrow. Production decisions need to be as deeply informed as possible. Operators need a 24/7 solution they can count on at all of their assets – to cover actual conditions without needless hours on the road in any weather.

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