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By Robert Ward, Ward BDC

In 30 years of participation in the measurement, automation and SCADA segment of the upstream Oil & Gas business, I’ve seen just about every method of connecting the unconnected with the vast range of wired and wireless sensors, RTU/PLC’s, radio’s, modems, all those blasted protocols; collectively, and endearingly, we call SCADA.

The differentiation between SCADA and IoT in this space as I see it is about the increasing desire, necessity, and feasibility to monitor things which have not been monitored, connecting things which had not been connected, and pushing decision making logic where it had never been before, providing the context towards a narrative as the system evolves.

The vision of SCADA and IoT convergence is not one of ‘if this or that’, but more of ‘some of this and some of that’.  There isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to connectivity and each application is plagued with a balance of power availability, sensor type, bandwidth/capacity, range of reach, and the interval of sampling and transmitting, and even computational ability.

Looking into the future and applying momentum and trajectory to today’s technologies catapults us to what once was considered a realm of ‘unobtainium’.  

Let’s see what the future holds…

Most sensors and their method of connectivity will become commoditized and more of a “lick n’ stick” type deployment with discovery-based connectivity using QR or NFC network adoption processes; ideally something even more discoverable than that and providing context about that device, how it is being used and which applications need its data.  The methods of connectivity will remain as directly cloud connected or via a field gateway. Cellular will evolve however beyond what we see today as Private-LTE gains adoption and 5G finds its way out of the urban areas and into the field possibly using fiber or satellite as a backhaul.  Alternatively, sensors will be cloud connected by way of a field gateway where the data is required for consumption at the field level prior to cloud delivery, or if the process is such that it is air-gapped from the internet altogether.  There will be innovation in the sensors with technologies emerging from other industries that provide multiple variables (more so than today’s MVS’s as used in flow) and increasingly nonintrusive.  Imagine a device that mounts on the pipe, harvests energy from it, measures pressure, temperature, flow, density, self-diagnostics, reports on exception outside of the scheduled interval, and is remotely managed for configuration and firmware.  Many of the attributes mentioned favor one connectivity method over another, those considerations will be a deployment decision for the buyer.

Gateways will be quite protocol agnostic and provide a level of harmony for interaction/interoperability between manufactures and their legacy standards.  The gateways will become somewhat difficult to distinguish from low end Edge computers and all will support multiple protocols as well as perform translation, containerization of light applications, routing, and evolving security models.

Edge computers will allow many of the server-side applications to reside in the field, offloading large amounts of data throughput which can be periodically delivered to a heavier analytic machine, to verify and recalibrate the lighter analytic instances deployed in the Edge device.  This philosophy affords modernization of legacy systems without requiring a “rip and replace” field communication upgrade.

Regarding Gateways and Edge Computers, we will see containers facilitate the democratization of application expertise with a marketplace rivaling todays smart phone App Stores with focus on unique subject matters such as artificial lift methods, multiphase measurements, advanced process control analytics, efficiency and sustainability determination, environmental impact, as well as predictive and prescriptive outputs that orchestrate field activity based on the known presence of field personnel.

The above sounds fantastic and almost achievable with what is available today.  However, one of today’s common oversites of such an integration exercise is that of a well-planned, and unitized, Device Management platform.  Without one you could scale a system using “templates” (also todays terminology), but the ability to manage at the device level and accelerate new device adoption would be a steep hill to climb. 

The basic definition of “Device” in this scenario is anything that is connected at an addressable protocol level.  The “Management” component is knowing the health state (diagnostics) of a device, version of hardware, firmware, application ware (if containerized), configuration files, software, connectivity methods and the management/dispersion of updates of each of those.  A well-planned Device Management platform will allow users the ability to scale their system without the need of a proportional number of human resources.  It will also support the integration of new and legacy equipment and maintenance programs with consistency and predictability.  If you think about what SNMP did for network management years ago but scaled to hundreds or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of sensors, gateways, Edge controllers, PLC’s, VFD’s, etc and envision all the moving pieces with only device to device connectivity and not a device to enterprise connectivity you will see potential for a bit of chaos.  

A well architected Device Management strategy will be paramount to scaling immense systems and will allow each of us to be a better purveyor of innovation for the next version of ourselves.

MultiTech was selected as an ideal provider/partner for jointly pursuing the Oil & Gas segment due to their tightly integrated offer ranging from LPWAN (NB-IoT, LTE-M, LoRaWAN), to Public and Private-LTE, CBRS, and of course Device Management. 

When considering their vision and ability to execute, I realized they are someone who I wished to be engaged to facilitate the connectivity of Fog devices (intelligent sensors), Gateways and Edge computing, and Cloud (data availability) with a unique level of integration using their DeviceHQ and LENS Device Management and Data Availability platforms.

The current variety of LPWAN’s offered (LoRa, NB-IoT, LTE-M) provide the end user the ability to apply the correct technology to the application while maintaining a degree of consistency well suited for massive scalability. As industrial rated sensors come to market LPWAN enabled, and in conjunction with their LTE, Private-LTE and CBRS for the backhaul, I see their potential for connectivity dominance in this Oil & Gas Segment.