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Network Mar 02, 2021

Satellites: the connectivity answer in the natural resources sector

The natural resources sector is turning to digitisation to support powerful new innovations that will help it push through its challenges, and it’s making oil, gas and mining increasingly bandwidth hungry.

This throws connectivity into the spotlight – how do you provide resilient, low latency connections to some of the most inhospitable and remote environments in the world?

To answer, the expanding field of satellite technology is stepping forward with connectivity solutions.

The natural resources sector faces challenges from every direction

Extracting hydrocarbon-based fuels is getting harder, pushing organisations into more challenging environments. Mining faces declining ore grades and mineral resources, while oil and gas are increasingly moving into deep-water and ultra-deep-water locations in the search for profitable fields. Forging forward into more sustainable forms of energy production, too, will involve operating in remote locations, from offshore wind farms and solar panel farms in the desert, to harnessing tidal power, monitoring methane emissions and more. Plus the IoT and telemetry requirements of these green initiatives will be high, making resilient, low-latency connectivity even more crucial. 

In many cases, these resources are remote and/or subject to volatile governance and political instability that can threaten access. They’re risky and potentially dangerous environments to get staff into and out of and for people to work in – so protecting the health and safety of workers is always top of any operator’s agenda. And the pandemic has added a further dimension to these concerns, making the tracking and monitoring of the workforce even more important.

But workforce welfare these days doesn’t just stop at health and safety measures. Wellbeing is also a significant factor, challenging operators to counteract the isolation and boredom of living and working away from families and communities. A younger, more educated and diverse workforce is pushing for flexible hours and a better work-life balance, as well as better experiences while on site, including connectivity with loved ones at home and the latest in entertainment streaming.

Looking to the global picture, meeting expectations for greener production methods or a reduced environmental impact is also hitting the natural resources sector hard. Regulation is tightening and pressure is building for fundamental change, bringing the prospect of considerable costs and challenges.

Layered on top of this is a high degree of price volatility, particularly in the oil and gas market. Operators have made huge investments into their production fields and, when the price drops, the inclination to invest further falls as well. This turns into a double-edged sword because, in order to make the cost reductions so essential in a declining price market, it’s imperative organisations keep the investment going in digitisation that will reduce expensive staffing or outdated processes.

The need to achieve operational efficiencies to increase profitability and reduce costs is particularly vital for energy companies because of the prospect of OPEC being abandoned in the next couple of years. If OPEC goes, price control will go with it, and then every site will have to justify its costs to stay viable.

Digitisation is a key part of overcoming the sector’s challenges

The natural resources sector is turning to digital technologies to support better, safer and more efficient ways of operating. Reliable, high-speed, low-latency connectivity is fundamental for:

  • The automation that takes people and cost out of dangerous operational situations
  • The HD (4K) cameras and telemetry that help experts share knowledge and make decisions remotely
  • The 3D printing processes that cut CO2 emissions, energy consumption and the levels of materials wasted
  • The video streaming services that keep workers connected to loved ones, support healthcare appointments and provide entertainment via streaming services and internet access
  • The Remote Operations Centres that reduce the land footprint of mining sites and lower the number of people required on site, cutting emissions and improving safety
  • The real-time monitoring capabilities that gather data at the edge to be analysed centrally
  • The body cams that constantly monitor an individual and their environment to reduce exposure to risk
  • The smart sensors that boost operational efficiency and cut CO2 emissions and water usage through precise production monitoring
  • The connected vehicles that have to stay connected to operate safely, or at all
  • Plus a whole host of emerging use cases, like augmented reality that adds to operational awareness.

In many of these situations, if the connection fails, work has to stop completely – and no operator wants that, or the consequently high costs of lost production.

Digital technologies make sense for the bottom line

Global consultancy firm McKinsey found that the effective use of digital technologies in the oil and gas sector could reduce capital expenditures by up to 20 per cent.

The consultant firm Kearney estimates that digital technologies can enhance mining profits by up to 45% within two to three years.

Satellite seamlessly fills the gaps for terrestrial connectivity

Many of these operating environments are in remote places where it’s difficult to lay fibre, or to justify the cost of a fibre connection. It’s also unlikely that even 5G will ever reach these locations. This is where satellite technology comes in, filling in the gaps where terrestrial connectivity cannot go or, in instances where it’s there as the only connection, providing a resilient second strand. In environments that are geographically or politically unstable, satellite communication is the ideal communication channel of last resort. After all, you can’t cut a link that’s in space that easily.

The first generation: geostationary satellites

Satellite technology has been available commercially for the last 30 years but, up until eight years ago, geostationary satellites were the only option. Sitting in a slot 36,000km above a particular location on the earth’s surface, a dish on earth looks up at a constantly fixed point. High throughput satellites in a geostationary orbit deliver connectivity speeds that you’d expect with a terrestrial ethernet connection but the round-trip delay of just over half a second can cause latency issues. This can have a particular impact on video communications and cloud computing applications.

However, the move to digitisation in operations spanning monitoring, safety, automation, increased real-time data analysis and video technology has driven take up of nearer earth technologies in the natural resources sector.

The advent of medium and low earth orbit satellites

The need for lower latency makes medium earth orbit (MEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) satellites attractive. All MEO satellites have an orbital period of less than 24 hours, travelling four or five times round the earth in a day because they’re closer to the earth. This proximity gives a sub 140 millisecond round trip and low latency that’s ideal for automation and other near real-time connections. LEO satellites are even closer to earth and offer round trip speeds of around 70 milliseconds.

The main set up difference between geostationary satellites and MEO/LEO satellites is the number of antennae you need. A fixed dish doesn’t work for MEO satellites because they travel at a different speed to the earth. Instead, to get a constant connection, you need a minimum of two antennae so you can always pick up a connection with a rising satellite in the constellation before the previous one sets. In practice, it takes a constant handover process that happens every 20-30 minutes. Some organisations choose to have three antennae for extra resilience.

The coverage of geostationary and MEO/LEO satellites differ, as well. Whereas a geostationary satellite can give connectivity anywhere on earth, MEO satellites currently only cover a latitude band between 55 degrees south and 55 degrees north of the equator, so it’s not possible to connect the extremities in land masses (unless additional polar or inclined orbit MEO satellites are added to the existing equatorial orbit constellation). However, LEO satellites offer extended coverage and new generations of MEO satellites are offering new inclined planes of orbit that will extend coverage if there’s interest from customers.

Partnering in the LEO world

We’ve recently signed a landmark agreement with OneWeb to create LEO satellite network and connectivity services.

Satellite services are a key part of our vision to enable digital solutions anywhere in the UK by 2028. We’ve started working to integrate LEO satellite services across our business and our first trials are planned for early 2022, focusing on the role of LEO satellites as a supplementary, low latency backhaul solution to sites needing additional capacity or a back-up solution to deliver improved resilience.

Meeting earth’s connectivity needs in space

We are committed to providing reliable, low-latency connectivity wherever our customers are in the world – and satellite technology is a critical part of delivering on this promise. We’ve forged a close partnership with SES, a pioneer in satellite innovation, to help us do that.

SES was the first enterprise to enter the MEO market with its O3b constellation and is replacing it with its next generation O3b mPOWER MEO system next year. Each of its 11 new high-throughput, low-latency satellites will deliver high-speed connectivity services, from tens of megabits to multiple gigabits per second, providing fibre-like connectivity to customers globally.

"We're really pleased to be working with BT as a trusted advisor to their customers and, as we launch our new mPOWER constellation, our partnership will go from strength to strength as we widen the applications of our technology.

Oliver Wheeldon, Senior Account Director, Global Telco Team at SES

A key way we will be delivering the seamless high-speed, low-latency connectivity that the natural resources sector requires involves a combination of geostationary and MEO satellites. Atmospheric conditions can affect satellite connections, effectively degrading the performance and, in the worst weather conditions, even severing the link - just as heavy rain can affect your home satellite TV reception. True connectivity resilience means building in redundancy by having connections in two different bands of the satellite spectrum in a hybrid GEO-MEO solution (using Ka, Ku and C-Band satellite services). SES is currently the only provider in the world that can offer this hybrid approach.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in satellite communications, as suppliers like SES are eager to tailor their services to emerging customer needs. Lead times are shortening and what was previously a five-year design and realisation period can now be completed in two years – or even less if a manufacturer is willing. The core message here is the importance of bringing in trusted satellite connectivity partners for confidential discussions, sharing your intent early on in your strategic process.

Delivering satellite-based connectivity to challenging locations

A global energy and petrochemical company wanted to ensure constant connectivity to three field campus sites that serviced the needs of 5000+ staff in a middle eastern country. Instability in the country made an alternative, redundant connectivity solution essential to maintain productivity and flexibility in the case of a network interruption. Working with our partner, SES, we rapidly delivered a high throughput, low latency fibre-like service via MEO satellites to make their operations safer, secure and more productive.

A satellite-based future

It’s a given that the natural resources sector needs to increase efficiencies and continually increase safety standards to tackle rising production costs and regulatory constraints. Digitalisation using real-time, cloud-based data in innovative ways is the route to achieving this – and satellite technology is the key to delivering connectivity to places where fibre, 4G or 5G just isn’t possible or would be too expensive.

Start your satellite connectivity journey today, to maintain your competitive edge. Get in touch with your account manager to find out more.