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Pumping profits: Shell saves $1M with IoT

Low oil prices mean petroleum producers need to spend and invest more carefully than ever, and the “Internet of Things” is helping. Last year, Royal Dutch Shell realized a $1 million return on an $87,000 investment in digital technology to monitor oilfields in some of Nigeria’s toughest terrain. After evaluating both cellular and satellite, Shell instead chose random phase multiple access technology.

RPMA, which was developed by a group of former Qualcomm engineers, can transmit for up to 450 square miles in the 2.4 GHz band. Ingenu Networks, which licenses the RPMA chipsets, has developed access points that are a bit larger than a shoebox and can attach to cell towers, broadcast towers or utility poles.

Choosing a solution
Shell’s boots on the ground in Nigeria are the engineers of Upland Consulting, which helped the oil giant evaluate network technologies. Shell hired Upland to find a technology that could replace manual oilfield data collection in the Niger Delta.

“The key criteria for selecting a solution were the technology’s ability to cover difficult terrain, power performance, and long-range transmission as well as network scalability, two-way communications and secure data transmission,” said Upland CEO Bola Awobamise. “Ingenu’s RPMA offered all of these attributes.”

Ingenu CEO John Horn said Shell needed just eight access points to cover its oil field footprint in Nigeria. The $87,000 investment covered the cost of the equipment and its installation. A year after the equipment was deployed, Shell had saved $1 million by reducing site visits and expediting data collection.

Croation connection
Croatia’s Koncar Inem was the manufacturer of the digital oil field modules that use Ingenu’s RPMA solution in Nigeria. Koncar end point devices with built-in RPMA modules are installed in the flow stations and manifolds, and at wellheads. The end points communicate with the access points, which then transmit data to Shell’s offices. Backhaul can be satellite, cellular, copper, fiber or a daisy chain from one access point to the next.

Koncar’s three wireless oil field end points are a pressure transmitter, a temperature transmitter and a remote terminal input-output unit. The company’s data export software sits on top of the RPMA system in the end points. The end points can control power consumption, schedule alarms and reporting, and encrypt transmitted data.

Licensing model
For seven-year-old Ingenu Networks, licensing RPMA technology to hardware manufacturers like Koncar is a growing opportunity. In the past, Ingenu developed a number of IoT end points on its own, and Horn said over the years the company has developed 73 products for utilities, oil and gas companies, and municipalities.

“We have a lot of hardware that’s available in that space, but going forward that will all be licensed out to other companies to build,” Horn said, adding Ingenu now averages 1,000 inquiries per month from companies interested in potentially licensing its RPMA chipset. Horn credits rivals Sigfox and LoRa with generating worldwide interest in low-power wide area IoT connections.

“Sigfox and LoRa are running around the world getting everybody excited about alternative technology,” said Horn. “They are our best sales force.”

Horn said that often when interested companies do the “deep dive,” Sigfox and LoRa come up short, and this creates an opportunity for Ingenu. “Koncar and Shell and other companies that we worked with around the world have tested and tried a lot of these other technologies and they come back inferior,” said Horn.

So far, Ingenu has deployed 38 private networks, and Horn said the company now has construction projects or commitments in 50 countries around the world.

The cellular challenge
Traditional wireless carriers are well aware of the IoT opportunity and are actively promoting the development of low-power LTE chipsets for industrial use cases. Category 1 LTE solutions from chipmakers Sequans and Altair are already making their way into commercial deployments, and the next generation of IoT chips are expected to use even less power and enable IoT modules to be priced as low as $8 per unit.

Horn said while many solution providers are working hard to adapt other technologies to the “Internet of Things,” RPMA is unique in that it was developed exclusively to connect machines.

“It’s the only technology that has been built from the ground up specifically for the purpose of a wide area machine network,” said Horn, noting while cellular technology has done a great job serving human communication needs, machine communication has not necessarily benefitted from recent advances in smartphone technology.

“Every time we get another generation or something happens to make it better for humans it makes it worse for machines,” Horn said. “Machines want stability, they want vast amounts of coverage for less money and for the network to be there for a long time and for batteries to work for a long time, and that’s what RPMA was designed for. … Everything that cellular does to make it great for people, we turn the physics 180 degrees in the other direction. Cellular’s about pounding in an enormous amount of data with small cells and getting as much data through as absolutely possible.” RPMA, on the other hand, is all about coverage.

“Where we would put one tower, cellular companies would put about 30 towers,” Horn said. “It took three months to build this network in the Nigerian Delta … [for] cellular companies it would have taken them a couple years to try to figure it out and develop it and they still wouldn’t have built it because it costs so much money and there are not people there to support it.”

For more on the Internet of Things, download RCR Wireless News’ complimentary feature report: IoT Opportunities for Carriers and Vendors.

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