Is Satellite the Missing Link in M2M Communications?
Although these were issues with older satellite technologies, it is not longer true with today’s services for SCADA and remote monitoring applications. Today options exist which provide reliable, cost effective satellite services and small, low power terminals that are extremely easy to install. Not long ago, satellite communications carried the negative stigma of being expensive, requiring power hungry large terminals that are complex to integrate with customer applications and being weather dependent, writes Gerbrand Schalkwijk, Vice President, Enterprise, Energy, Inmarsat. For these reasons, satellite services for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) applications, low data rate (LDR) solutions and other remote unmanned machine to machine (M2M) monitoring management services, was only considered as the last resort option where terrestrial communication solutions do not exist. Global remote management applications such as monitoring oil and gas pipelines are leaning towards expanding their use of satellite communications and even choosing satellite over traditional cellular and terrestrial solutions as they reduce the total cost of ownership, not just cheap airtime. This becomes critical as new environmental and safety concerns and regulations require more detailed data and higher levels of reliability than ever before. For example, In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) authored and President Obama signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act focusing U.S. pipeline owners and operators to conduct a comprehensive review of their oil and gas pipelines to identify areas of high risk. Most oil and gas exploration and operation takes place in areas where basic communications do not exist. The outlook is much better these days with satellite technology providing communications in the most extreme and isolated of locations. Common in the U.S., satellite communications have been combined with licensed and unlicensed radio for thorough, cost effective coverage. Cellular technologies have played a role as backup communications to the weather-affected VSATs. These hybrid approaches take advantage of lowcost radio and cellular where it is feasible and available but ensures redundancy and reliability by complementing it with highly reliable satellite services that work anywhere a view to the sky is possible. Pipeline monitoring and control is serious business and reliability is an absolute requirement. Monitoring sites in difficult environments, with extreme weather and geography, may dictate the use of necessary technologies such as heaters on antennas or the use of larger antennas to provide reliable signal. These solutions can be costly and require technical resources to engineer and install.
SCADA satellite terminals are extremely low power, simple to operate, easy to maintain and can be installed without any specialist engineering skills. Thanks to new satellite products and services, a specialised terminal designed specifically for these SCADA applications ~ combined with affordable airtime ~ result in a reduced total cost of ownership. These types of solutions are necessary on the main monitoring points of pipelines, however, there are many monitoring points which are less critical and require less frequent communications. These more remote points aren’t likely to have power available and don’t always warrant the large expense of the engineering, installation and cost of the larger sites. One of the key benefits of these new satellite M2M systems is that the system is not impacted by requirement for local infrastructure such as power. It does not need commercial power infrastructure as it uses battery/solar or wind power. Like other communications options, it can operate in a completely autonomous way with remote monitoring solutions, significantly reducing the number of site visits and operational costs. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that it works well anywhere in the world where a view to the sky is available. The new Hughes 9502 M2M is an example of a terminal specifically designed for SCADA. It is a small simple twopiece design with less than three components; outdoor antenna, indoor modem and an RF cable to connect the two. It has a simple pole mount design, and the only skill to setup the terminal is to roughly point it in the direction of the satellite. Its standby operating power is less than 1W. This terminal can be rebooted manually by remotely sending an SMS message instead of a technician or automatically rebooted using a transmission watchdog which reboots the terminal if no transmission occurs within a specific time period. New satellite services are integrated with terminals for low power operation and use low-cost, low data rate plans. SCADA solutions generally operate in very harsh environments. Heavy rain, snow and even dust may degrade communication services. To counter this, new services operate on the L-band and are proven to provide 99.9% connectivity even in harsh weather conditions. The 9502 operates on the Inmarsat-provided Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). Unlike cellular, which performs well below Inmarsat's 99.9% availability, BGAN provides steady, fast and reliable communications each and every time a remote is contacted. Many times radio towers are not feasible to reach the many remote sites still requiring personnel visits, but the BGAN M2M solution will work anywhere.
Satellitewill becomeeven morepertinent astheoiland gasindustry expandsitsuse ofM2Mbeyond rigs,pipesand platformsto newareas including tracking vehiclesand geo-fencing.
With environmental monitoring movingupthe agenda,new technologieswill continueto ensuresatellite becomesmore affordable, reliableand effectiveto meetthese evolvingneeds.
Gerbrand Schalkwijk, VP Enterprise, Energy, Inmarsat