Going with the flow: how 5G will power the oil and gas industry’s thirst for data

(Image credit: Infosys Consulting.)

Flow rates are a fundamental part of oil and gas production, and not just for the hydrocarbons themselves. The speed and volume of data transmission is every bit as important, especially as operations increasingly rely on real-time monitoring, automation and unmanned operations.

The oil and gas industry is characterised by extreme conditions for human resources, machinery and transportation. Unfortunately, technology has not kept pace with today’s demand for huge volumes of real-time information. While data volumes rise at a giddying rate and low latency becomes paramount for a huge range of services, the industry is struggling to cope with legacy data technologies such as Wi-Fi and cables, both of which have severe limitations. It’s as if, instead of the usual 18” pipe used to transport crude oil, operators are trying to cram the same volume of “product” through a 6” conduit.

Traditional data technologies are threatening to act as a brake on new applications such as remote inspection and servicing. In reaction, the oil and gas industry needs to harness the power of 5G to ensure that they can provide the data ‘flow’ on which their operations increasingly depend.

The data challenge

"To support services such as real-time monitoring and automation, sites need a data technology that combines high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. 5G will fill this gap."

Simon Tucker.

In the last few years the data demands of the oil and gas industry have increased beyond almost everyone’s expectation. Examples of today’s data-heavy applications include real-time operations monitoring; tracking and continuous analysis of quality and quantity of cargoes in various types of transportation; the surveillance of assets such as terminals, refineries, platforms, and trucks; and various unmanned operations.

Currently, oil and gas businesses have to rely on cables or Wi-Fi for their data transmission, and there are significant problems with both. Cables may provide the low latency that is so crucial to these applications, but they are costly to install and modify due to their physical nature. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, provides the necessary flexibility and ease of installation while being significantly cheaper than cabling. The only downside – and it is a major one – is that it is limited to the coverage of the Wi-Fi network which, given the remoteness of so many oil and gas production sites, restricts its utility.

To support services such as real-time monitoring and automation, sites need a data technology that combines high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. 5G will fill this gap.

5G provides the solution 

"With 5G, oil and gas businesses can implement two-way communication, including through wearables devices, as well as truly remote operations."

Simon Tucker.

If the story of 4G was about downloading movies on your mobile in a matter of minutes, 5G promises to bring the same leap forward for businesses that rely on huge volumes of data transmitted at low latency in a wireless, standardised environment. The advantages are legion: 5G will cut the costs of installation of a proprietary Wi-Fi or cable infrastructure; increase coverage and connectivity compared to current technologies; and provide the capacity and low-latency required for reliable, real-time operations monitoring. 

So, what will a 5G-enabled oil and gas industry look like? 5G will drive improvements across the entire oil and gas lifecycle, from upstream developments to refining operations to transportation, to real-time monitoring of assets such as drill rigs and pipelines, to remote operations and surveillance. 

Most importantly, these new capabilities will ultimately lead to a reduction in human intervention through automation, and an increase in efficiency and personnel safety. With 5G, oil and gas businesses can implement two-way communication, including through wearables devices, as well as truly remote operations where data is sent to the operator in real-time depending on the problem. It will also create automated devices with no latency between decisions; for example, by enabling the mixing of oil products in remote locations with minimal human intervention and no need for local networks.

High performance data, everywhere

One of the problems facing the industry is the sheer remoteness of many of the installations, from production platforms to refineries to pipelines and other means of transportation. A lack of modern network infrastructure means that these sites simply can’t transmit data quick enough via traditional cabling, and so must resort to hosting key services onsite – which brings inefficiencies and reduces synergy across a group. 

Secure 5G networks, however, can connect these remote sites to ‘the group’, enabling them to benefit from group IT services, driving efficiency and employee satisfaction.

Robust, high latency telecommunications will, moreover, enable operators to implement the latest emerging technologies in IoT, smart remote operations, and autonomous vehicles such as unmanned ground vehicles and drones for inspection. 

As the industry searches ever further afield for new energy deposits, 5G will be the key technology for ensuring that data – a commodity every bit as important as crude oil or natural gas – continues to flow at the speed and volume required.

Simon Tucker

Simon Tucker is Managing Partner, Energy & Commodities at Infosys Consulting. Infosys Consulting offers global consulting services to some of the world’s biggest businesses. It helps enterprises strategise, design and implement growth strategies and business transformation. Its consultants have an average of 20 years’ experience across a wide range of specialisms, from oil and gas to manufacturing, retail and CPG to supply chain, to change management and AI and automation.