Connectivity is a critical tool for an energy industry in transition

By Simon Gatty Saunt, SES

SES second-generation of medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites – O3b mPOWER
SES second-generation of medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites – O3b mPOWER (illustration: SES)

Hydrocarbons are becoming a finite asset for energy operators. For the first time, extraction and production companies are having to plan for a future where economies and industries are having to meet their future zero-carbon ambitions. Thus, value calculations have changed – and only the most profitable projects can provide a viable pay-back during this transition.

The quest for net zero has seen energy exploration and production pushed into ever more challenging, remote environments by the promise of low opex. Deepwater hydrocarbon projects are becoming increasingly attractive, while onshore projects in geographically or politically challenging regions are showing their value.

Often these remote locations will pose additional challenges. Extreme weather, political issues, or bathymetry can limit access to traditional digital infrastructure and make it difficult to bring staff or equipment to a site. This has traditionally made remote operations inflexible and relatively expensive.

Energy companies rely on an increasingly complex suite of connected digital technologies for their conventional sites to boost profitability, enhance operations, and improve safety. Given the additional complexities inherent in operating remote sites, these technologies represent even more value – yet are more difficult to implement.

Wire-based fibre connections can be complicated – or cost prohibitive – to install in these areas and can be easily severed. This is where high throughput, low latency satellite connectivity can play a crucial role in delivering the 4G or 5G technology that operators need to make these projects viable for the long term.

Critical technology
Satellite connectivity, coupled with the new generation of connected sensors and cloud computing platforms, has already enabled innovative technology to perform or perfect mission critical tasks. So far, the energy industry’s digitalisation strategy has prioritised automation – but the benefits of digitalisation go so much further.

Important processes, ranging from HVAC to drill positioning, are connected to AI today. In fact, it is now commonplace for AI-led automation to play a part in every aspect of an energy project – either replacing the need for human intervention or supplementing and enhancing a human’s inputs.

This increases production and reduces costs, while reducing the need for staff to perform challenging tasks – especially in remote locations, where staff might otherwise be battling with weather or geography. It also relies on a huge number of sensors, transmitting barely believable amounts of real-time data to cloud computing systems.

Data can go further than automation, and some have already begun to leverage this resource. We have already seen all major operators implement some degree of predictive maintenance to reduce upkeep costs, improve safety, and extend the lifespan of their assets, while others have taken this a step further to create complete “digital twins” of their projects that deliver enhanced analytics and insights.

Cloud-first connectivity
The current wave of digitalisation has required energy companies to start to change their long-standing practice of working with incompatible, proprietary technologies. In the past, companies had developed in-house systems that would work with costly, inefficient and inflexible in-house servers. These in-house servers suffer from more issues for remote assets. A connection between the asset and a server may have to travel between several nodes before reaching its destination, resulting in a latency delay that has a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of real-time applications.

We have seen a rapid recognition that in-house servers are not an appropriate solution. Today, virtually every major energy operator has a “cloud-first” approach to digitalisation. They require latency-sensitive connectivity that could deliver huge amounts of immediate processing power to the most remote parts of the world.

Satellite connectivity is the crucial building block for remote or offshore energy projects. Which is why SES has been working closely with major cloud operators such as AWS and Microsoft to implement SES Cloud Direct. This solution extends an IP or Ethernet-based satellite link from any remote site to the cloud, creating an end-to-end, dedicated connection from any remote location or edge compute node to major cloud platforms.

This solution is essential to support high-value, mission-critical cloud workloads with specific performance, latency and security requirements, enabling operators to confidently invest in new technologies and will continue to be critically important as more innovative, data intensive solutions enter the market.

O3b mPOWER Global Constellation
O3b mPOWER Global Constellation (illustration: SES)

Forward-thinking strategy
Together with our network partners, SES has helped numerous energy companies of various sizes make their digital transformation a reality over the past eight years. By connecting on and offshore operations within our single management hub, we have immediately created real-time operational visibility and accurate insights across working entire ecosystems.

With a single network partner, we have delivered thousands of connected sensors to energy customers operating both offshore and remote onshore assets. These connected sensors have directly allowed more resilient and more efficient operations in particularly challenging regions, where conventional lines of communication are frequently severed.

Currently, the SES O3b constellation is the only major MEO satellite telecommunications constellation in commercial operation – and provides the low-latency, high speed connectivity operators currently need.

Yet, as operators’ requirements evolve, the market envisages even higher bandwidth requirements and more inconsistent data allocation demand in the coming years. Therefore, we have invested in the second-generation of MEO satellites – O3b mPOWER. When it enters service by year-end 2022, the ground-breaking high-throughput, low-latency O3b mPOWER network will deliver guaranteed high-speed connectivity (up to multiple gigabits per second of committed throughput). This will allow energy companies to leverage the right combination of O3b mPOWER’s reliable global reach, high-performance, and scale according to their specific operational needs.

The oil asset of the future must deliver a very quick return because no one yet knows how long a future oil asset will be viable. Connectivity is the only way in which today’s energy companies can ensure that they have all the information they need to evaluate profitability, and the best way to ensure remote assets deliver the best possible returns.

Simon Gatty Saunt, VP Commercial Maritime and Energy at SES NetworksSimon Gatty Saunt, Vice President Sales, Global Service Providers at SES, has held a number of senior positions in the satellite business for the past 20 years. This includes over 15 years at SES, which most recently included Vice President of Sales EMEA prior to his current role. In his current role, Gatty Saunt’s team is responsible for the management of many SES key accounts, which include many of the world’s largest cross segment global service providers.