Saudi Aramco builds multiple wireless local area networks

Saudi Aramco is a vast organisation that straddles not only the Middle East’s but also the world’s energy industry.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  December 31, 2003

Saudi Aramco is a vast organisation that straddles not only the Middle East’s but also the world’s energy industry. The behemoth owns and operates an extensive network of refining and distribution facilities that generate one quarter of the globe’s oil. Each organisation and business unit within the company has to be connected. Should an operation be unable to communicate, the company’s momentum is slowed and its ability to optimise operations reduced. As such, an effective and reliable network infrastructure is a must for Aramco. “Communication plays a vital role in Saudi Aramco, not only for business purposes, but also for the day-to-day health, safety and security of the people working at our oil & gas installations and other operations,” says Nabil Al-Dabal, manager, communications engineering & technical support, Saudi Aramco. “As such, there is a vital need for an effective, simple and uninterrupted communications infrastructure,” he explains. Back in the 1930s, Aramco relied primarily on wired infrastructures and wireless radio services, such as UHF and VHF. Two decades later, microwave radios made inroads into the company’s backhaul services and digital microwave radio and fibre optic systems came to the fore three decades after that. Today, the oil giant’s infrastructure has taken another leap forward and Aramco has turned its attention towards mobile computing. The instances of wireless deployments within the firm are numerous and Aramco has been busy building wireless networks to deliver on its data needs and to support its ever-expanding stable of mobile applications. On some of the company’s oil fields, for instance, wireless local area networks (WLANs) are being deployed as a quick communications fix. “For a quick deployment solution we initially put in wireless because that satisfies the user requirements and then later on, depending on the business requirements, we can either upgrade it or replace it with fibre optics,” explains Al-Dabal. The company also uses wireless in the field for its remote realtime geosteering system for drilling operations. It enables realtime drilling, logging and survey data to be collected onsite before being transmitted by satellite to headquarters. From there it can be accessed from anywhere via wireless devices. The set up has accelerated data analysis, feedback and other decision making activities. “This saves time, which is valuable to the company, but it also means we have remote connectivity that stretches for several hundred kilometres… It [also] reduces our operations on the site, which is important for the company because it also reduces costs,” says Al-Dabal. An additional use of mobile computing in the field comes in the form of construction maintenance & operational engineering. The scope of data required for this is vast and engineers require information on everything from the onsite plant’s cabling systems to its actual operation. “With oil & gas companies spending so much money on maintaining facilities, speed of access to maintenance and other information becomes valuable to improve on field productivity. The usage of mobile computing devices plays the number one role in this productivity improvement,” Al-Dabal says. Away from the oil field, Aramco is using wireless technology in a number of very different environments. For example, it has already started to implement a wireless inventory system using handhelds and barcodes. It has also deployed WLANs in its hospitals, along with mobile workstations, so doctors can instantly access and add to patients’ medical records on the ward, rather than having to leave the patient and return to an office or central station. Elsewhere, wireless networks are being deployed in office buildings to ensure Aramco is able to take advantage of converged voice and data services as they mature and become more widespread. “This is expected to eventually lead to the development of the wireless office, giving growth to enhanced services and cost savings,” says Al-Dabal. Moving forward, Aramco is dedicated to implementing wireless infrastructures and mobile computing solutions wherever applicable, as it believes they boost internal efficiencies, therefore reducing operational cost for the company and sharpening its competitive edge. “The convergence of voice and data wireless connectivity will rapidly become the medium of choice for new installations,” says Al-Dabal. “This will not only give cost savings but will speed up the provisioning of services. Wireless enhances productivity and efficiency and in particular it speeds decision making, which provides a significant competitive advantage for us,” he adds.

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