Is That a Satellite in Your Gas Tank?

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When you start your car in the morning or cook your dinner at night, chances are a satellite is helping you do it.

We depend on fossil fuels pulled from the Earth’s crust for 82% of the energy we use.  The world may not need more carbon in the air, but we still rely on fossil fuels to power our businesses, heat and cool our homes, cook our meals and move our vehicles.  Despite investments in renewable energy, experts still expect fossil fuels to supply 75% of the world’s energy in 2035.

Why? Emerging economies are growing fast, lifting billions out of poverty, and the rise of the new middle class is powered by fossil fuels. Despite the recent crash in prices, companies will keep searching for the Earth’s hydrocarbon wealth.  But they need to do it in smarter, safer ways that have less impact on the environment, are much more efficient and cost a lot less.

And that’s where satellite and infor­mation technology are leading the way.

The Digital Oilfield

Oil and gas wells may depend on “rough­necks” to man the heavy equipment, but decisions about where to explore and how to produce are driven by Big Data.  Energy companies use sensors to search, manage drilling and inspect for problems.  “Digital oilfield” technology finds energy sources we could never find before.  It estimates reserves and provides data that helps engi­neers figure out the best ways to get at them.  It monitors equipment and detects failures and potential failures, so that companies get more out of known reserves while managing the environ­mental and safety risks.

Stallion Oilfield Services is a customer of the satellite operator SES.  It operates hundreds of drilling and production rigs across the USA.  The company depends on satellite every day.  “Voice and data communications are the lifeline of any oil and drilling operation,” says Pedro Buhigas, Director of Technology.  “We never know from one day to the next where we may be asked to go, and what type of communications we may need.”

Spreading the Intelligence

As Pedro noted, today’s energy companies need the talents of engineers, geologists and data analysts in more corners of the world than ever before.  But that demand far outstrips the supply.   Satellite links let experts work remotely on multiple sites at the same time without ever leaving home.

Oil Platform. Source: NASA JPL
Oil Platform. Source: NASA JPL

For a UK-based oilfield services company, SpeedCast created a network that connected all of the client’s offshore rigs to a single global service center.  “They estimate,” said a SpeedCast executive, “that centralizing their support for the rigs let them reduce overall costs by 30%.”

When things go wrong in the energy business, it can have terrible impacts, from the burning oilfields of Kuwait in the first Gulf War to the Deepwater Horizon disas­ter.  The same satellite and information technology that boosts performance can also help companies comply better and faster with environmental and safety rules.  By capturing and recording data in real-time, satellites show companies where their real risks lie and give regula­tors powerful tools to drive enforcement.

A Better Place to Work

Satellites and IT make the wellhead a better place to work as well.  They bring in media and Internet connections that let crew­members keep up with the world and con­nect with home.  In Australia, Amstar developed a network for Gorgon, one of the world’s largest natural gas pro­jects, which offers entertainment, Internet and telephone service to crewmembers living on the site.  In boom times, the energy sector can have as many as one million job openings going unfilled, according to McKinsey, and a better work­place can help companies compete.

Satellite also makes possible remote medical care that improves the lives of crewmembers while saving their employers money.  Transporting a sick crewmember just 50 miles by helicopter for medical care can cost up to $10,000.  A boat ride from the Gulf of Thailand and emergency jet to Singapore can cost up to $150,000.  Remote medical systems let medics at the wellhead collect health data and share it with fara­way doctors, who can diagnose, prescribe care and make the decision to evacuate if needed.  According to one firm, InPlace Medical, telemedicine lets teams resolve 80-85% of situations quickly without the need for transport, which delivers better care as well as saving money.

You may not put a satellite in your fuel tank.  You may not pop one in the oven.  But satellites are helping to secure the high-energy lifestyle we lead while the world searches for more sustainable ways to power our future.


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Sources: World Energy Outlook, November 12, 2013, International Energy Agency (www.worldenergyoutlook.org);  “Energy Market Continues to Provide Solid Growth for the Satellite Communications Industry, Offcom News, March 12, 2013;  “Global Research from Lloyd’s Register Energy Confirms the Priorities Up to 2025,” Lloyd’s Register, January 27, 2015; “Case Study: Stallion Oilfield Services,” SES, January 2014; “Healthcare Delivery for Oil Rig Workers: Tele­medicine Plays a Vital Role,” Telemedicine and E-Health, July/August 2010;  “Don’t Forget the Kbps in the Energy Markets,” by Brad Grady, NSR, January 27, 2015;“Five Trends in Oil & Gas Tech­nology, and Why You Should Care” by Mac Elatab, VentureBeat News, March 28, 2012.