September 2014

Featured Article

ECE in Oil and Gas

By Dennis Peters, Chair, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Memorial University

If you ask students what type of Engineering they think they should study if they want to work in the oil and gas industry, they're likely to say that Petroleum, Chemical, Mechanical or Process Engineering would be the best majors. While these students aren't wrong ­­ there is no doubt that these disciplines cover a clear majority of Engineering jobs in oil and gas ­­ they also are not entirely right, since pretty much every discipline is represented in this industry, including both Electrical and Computer Engineering. As with many modern industries, the oil and gas business requires Engineers of all disciplines, who usually work in multidisciplinary teams alongside both technical and non­technical colleagues to accomplish a wide variety of projects.

Roles for Electrical and Computer Engineers result from the oil and gas extraction and processing industries both directly and indirectly. Direct roles stem from the fact that these industries are, like many modern industries, heavily dependent on electrical power and ECE specializations such as instrumentation and control systems, telecommunications, computerized data processing and electronics. It is hard to imagine, for example, a modern oil field or refinery without hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of sensors throughout the systems to help operators or control systems to measure system inputs, function and outputs, be they pressure, flow rate, temperature or other parameters. Oil rigs are, of course, large and complicated systems of machinery. Step inside a control room and you are bound to see a substantial array of electronic instrument displays and a variety of computer systems, including both ordinary computers, possibly running specialized software applications, and industry specific systems with embedded computational power. Many of these systems are, of course, designed with the help of electrical or computer engineers. Electricity and computers are a fact of life in any modern system, so electrical and computer engineers are involved in making these systems work and keep working.

As another example of direct ECE involvement, consider modern exploration, for example using seismic techniques, which is an exercise in signal processing and numerical modelling that involves huge data sets and computation problems. Processing these data sets in a timely manner requires some of the most advanced computation power available and is constantly driving the cutting edge of computation. Computer engineers are at the forefront of development of systems that can solve these problems.

The roles for electrical and computer engineers that indirectly stem from the oil and gas industry are somewhat more varied and less obvious. In my own corner of the world (Newfoundland and Labrador ­­ Canada’s most easterly province), for example, "oil and gas" has been synonymous with "offshore" since the 1970’s when the first major oil field, Hibernia, was discovered. The economic impact of this in a province with only about half a million people is very significant. We currently have four offshore fields in production or active development with total reserves in the range of 3 billion barrels, and so our industry has developed a very healthy ocean technology sector, which focuses on some of the unique challenges that the harsh marine environment presents (the fisheries, aquaculture and shipping are also supported by this sector). A very good indication of this is found in OceansAdvance Inc. (www.oceansadvance.net), which is an organization formed to help foster and promote the ocean technology cluster in Newfoundland

and Labrador. The membership of OceansAdvance spans a wide variety of companies, research institutes and educational institutions that are active in the sector, many of which involve significant contributions from electrical and computer engineers and are internationally recognized in their fields.

An example of one aspect of this industry that has developed into a strength locally is simulation of marine systems for training purposes. Two companies in particular, Virtual Marine Technologies (VMT) (www.vmtechnology.ca) and GRI Simulations (www.grisim.com) have established international reputations as providers of simulators for different marine systems. VMT develops high fidelity simulation solutions to help offshore oil and gas operators and drilling contractors enhance offshore emergency preparedness and competency. Their products range from desktop simulations to fully immersive systems which emulate the physical controls and numerical motion of small crafts while providing realistic visual, audio and haptic cueing systems. GRI Simulations develops simulators for Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV), which are a mainstay of the offshore oil and gas industry. Such systems are used to train offshore personnel for regular and emergency operations and have significant advantages over other techniques, such as on the water training:

  • it is more effective ­­ the simulation can put the trainees in situations that are not practical on the water;

  • it is much safer ­­ 'live' training exercises carry significant risk even in calm conditions; and

  • it is cheaper.

The challenges in developing such simulators are often within the domain of ECE. Randy Billard, Chief Technical Officer at VMT said "More than half of our technical staff are Electrical or Computer engineers who work on simulation technologies through various stages of technical maturity, from prototypes to commercial deployments. As the development team responsible for building and maintaining our simulators, these engineers work with subject matter experts in competence assurance, naval architecture and mechanical engineering to ensure our simulators provide accurate and high fidelity virtual environments which can be used for training.”

Other examples of ECE systems in the ocean technology sector are telecommunications systems and remote sensing.

University ECE programs can and should respond to the needs of this sector where appropriate, but it must not be at a cost to the integrity and strength of the programs. An employer hiring an Electrical Engineer, after all, is doing so because they want an Electrical Engineer, and they have expectations as to the competencies that that employee will possess, so we shouldn’t let them down. At Memorial University we have achieved this primarily through the technical electives that are offered to our students, which in this case fall into two categories:

  1. ECE courses that focus on areas of specialization that are particularly useful in the oil and gas industry, such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition.
  2. Courses from other departments, in our case usually from our Department of Process Engineering, that are accessible to ECE students and give the students some exposure to oil and gas related topics such as Offshore Petroleum Geology and Technology.

By using the technical elective portion of the program we maintain standards by ensuring that the core competencies are developed in the compulsory courses and so the electives can add breadth or depth as suits the students’ interest.

While other disciplines clearly are in the majority in the oil and gas industry, ECE has a substantial role to play both directly and indirectly through related support industries and it is possible and appropriate for our university programs to adjust to serve this need. 

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