Managing Video in Remote Oilfields

By Jonathan Murray, CEO, Pixel Velocity

Published October 10, 2019

2019 looks like the year when the oil and gas industry will begin deploying video to monitor remote oil and gas production sites. Remote monitoring can help manage costs, improving productivity and profitability. Several types of remote video monitoring solutions are available. How do you choose?

Managing Video in Remote Locations

A key factor is how different solutions manage video in remote locations. Most oil and gas production sites are in places like deserts and wind-swept plateaus connected by cellular networks. These locations lack the infrastructure we are accustomed to when we watch Netflix at home or YouTube on an iPhone.  Bandwidth is scarce and networks are used for other purposes—sending SCADA data from sensors or supporting cellular service for traveling workers. Video is bandwidth-intensive and can crowd out other uses.

There are basically three ways to manage video in these challenging environments: 1. Live streaming; 2. Sending it to the cloud; or 3. Managing it on site. Let’s consider all three choices.

Live Streaming Video

Traditional Video Management Systems (VMS) live stream video. These systems were designed for physical security applications like detecting perimeter breaches in buildings or gate monitoring in campuses with ample bandwidth. A VMS consolidates the output of dozens or hundreds of cameras in a control center, projected on screens, and viewed by people—whether the customer does the monitoring or outsources it to a third-party. The underlying assumption of these systems is that high-throughput bandwidth, like fiberoptic cabling, is available. Monitoring security in city buildings is a perfect use for a VMS. Vendors of these types of solutions include Genetec and Wave.

Pictured: a quote that reads Live streaming video over a cellular network from a remote site is something else altogether. Bandwidth is scarce. Other uses compete for it. Data plans have caps, above which carriers may throttle traffic or apply big surcharges. Keep this is mind when a VMS seems to work on a few cameras being tested in a proof of concept: You can’t live stream video at scale over a cellular network. Even a couple of dozen cameras live streaming video could bring a network to a crawl or force a network provider to throttle traffic; this defeats the purpose of remote monitoring and can ring up the costs.

VMS vendors are usually familiar to the physical security department of oil and gas companies and in use for central building security. If the security department is part of your decision process, they may suggest one of these solutions and you should be ready to challenge them with your questions or waste a year proving that a VMS isn’t designed for managing video in remote sites connected by cellular networks.

Sending Video to the Cloud

Another way to manage video in remote locations is to send it into cloud data centers managed by Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, or another provider. This is typically the approach taken by managed service providers like Osprey Informatics or PetroCloud. These vendors own and install the cameras, servers, network and other physical infrastructure required for remote monitoring, plus providing a monitored control center, in exchange for a hefty monthly fee. The fee includes the cost of hardware ownership, software, network management, financing, and bandwidth, but the costs often aren’t detailed.

Pictured: a quote that reads Managed solutions don’t eliminate the problems and costs of live streaming video; they just obscure them from customer sight. Video is still being live streamed in the background, but to a data center instead of a control room. In some cases, these solutions depend on the customers’ own data plans for live streaming video, which can lead to unexpected charges or throttling.

More importantly, with video stored in the cloud, customers lose control of their data. These vendors will let you look at your data, but they’ll have possession of it. Controlling your data is part of these vendor’s business models: they analyze it and charge again for providing data analytics.

Not to mention that once your data is in the cloud, it is there forever, ringing up storage expenses, outside of your possession, creating liability.

Managing Video on Site

A third way to manage video in remote production facilities is to employ edge computing to manage video on site. Video is managed and stored on a server on location instead of being live streamed over a cellular network. Alerts are triggered by meta data sent over the cellular network and managed by a complex software program like Event Velocity, which is purpose-built for managing video on the edge of networks with scarce bandwidth.

This solves the problems of bandwidth constraints, data plan overcharges, and network throttling. It requires the installation of a server on site from a vendor like Dell, which is an additional initial expense, but over time saves money on data plans and storage. More importantly, it enables you to maintain control over your data.

The purpose of having video in remote locations is to provide 24/7 “eyes-on” visualization of remote assets. This augments numerical sensors that provide useful information but cannot replace site visits. A solution that undermines 24/7 remote video access is incomplete and imperfect.

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