Why space is Aramco’s next frontier
To make the most of the Internet of Things and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need data from our most remote sites — and Low Earth Orbit satellites can make the connection.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0) is improving industrial processes by gathering reams of information from physical machinery and transmitting it across the internet.
As processes connect via the Internet of Things (IoT), businesses can use the information to make smarter, faster decisions. But that requires unprecedented volumes of data to flow quickly to decision-making centers. For a company like Aramco, with facilities in remote desert sites or at sea, that presents a serious data transmission challenge.
Many of our sites are too remote to justify laying fiber-optic cables or installing 5G mobile masts. Since the 1970s, we have used satellites to connect these facilities, but the data generated by IR4.0 is too voluminous. The answer lies in a new generation of satellites, in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), that can send more data, quicker than ever before.
Not only is Aramco planning to use these satellites to supercharge IR4.0 operations, it is also investing in the technology itself, partnering with the companies making it happen so we can accelerate development.
Nabil A. Al Nuaim is Aramco’s senior vice president of Digital & Information Technology.
Connecting remote sites
The benefits that such technologies will unlock for Aramco are enormous. Our wells, for instance, are often in baking-hot deserts, thousands of kilometers from the nearest control center. Operators must visit them regularly to perform maintenance, collect data, and carry out other essential tasks. This is time-consuming and poses a safety risk.
Connected with IR4.0 technology, these sites will be able to relay data to a central control center, enabling many of these actions to be directed remotely.
In the not too distant future, we expect that data relayed from a site will be analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI), which will predict what maintenance is necessary, and when, reducing the number of site visits.
Better connectivity could also enable the deployment of robots to carry out tasks that enable full automation without human intervention.
Similar applications are possible for exploration sites, cross-country pipelines, and marine operations. New technology can make operations more efficient, safer, and more secure, but only if fast data transmission is available.
New satellite networks
Aramco operates a vast network of oil and gas facilities scattered all over Saudi Arabia and overseas. Most of our remote sites are connected by the world’s largest very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT) network. This uses geostationary satellites, in a fixed position at 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, to transmit data to and from ground sites. However, the distance causes latency that limits the applications VSAT can support.
LEO satellites solve this.
These networks of satellites orbit the Earth, rather than remaining geostationary, as low as 160 kilometers above the surface. That allows for data transmission speeds that are up to 10 times faster, and greater bandwidth, so they can transmit larger volumes of information.
The satellites can support and extend 5G networks, taking on a role that would otherwise require extending networks of cell towers. Crucially, they can handle the large data volumes associated with many 4IR applications and do so with the very low latency levels that are needed for many real time-sensitive applications.
That is why Aramco has been working to accelerate research and development in this cutting-edge area of communications.
Building technology partnerships through CST
In addition to collaborating with Saudi Arabia’s Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST), we have worked with OneWeb, a LEO satellite company that first launched satellites in 2019 and now has more than 600 in orbit. In becoming an early adopter of the technology, we can help drive uptake and establish new standards.
We have also invested €13 million in OQ Technology, a start-up focused on developing a satellite constellation to provide 5G IoT coverage anywhere in the world. In a pilot study, OQ Technology successfully transmitted sensor data, including temperature, humidity, and CO2 emissions, from a remote oil wellhead to Aramco headquarters. OQ is currently establishing a global subsidiary in Saudi Arabia, which will become the only 5G space network operations center in the Middle East.
We are also considering hosting a ground station from OneWeb which will provide LEO satellite connectivity services to the entire Middle East and North Africa region.
Aramco is also expanding space capabilities through investing in “Alteia” to provide artificial intelligence geospatial object detection solutions. Additionally, Aramco is setting up a space center in its innovation and product development facility, LAB7, to support local space entrepreneurs in developing solutions.
Our commitment to space technology will benefit Saudi Arabia more widely, complementing the Kingdom’s goal of building a cutting-edge economy with a highly skilled workforce.
The future for LEO
LEO satellite networks have not yet reached full maturity and more satellites must be launched to provide the coverage needed.
However, as associated costs become more affordable, the technology is expected to become an increasingly feasible option.
As it does, that will open new uses for low earth orbit technology, for us and for other industries. For example, we believe the monitoring potential of satellites may help us reduce emissions. LEO satellite networks will also play a vital role in enabling smart cities.
To ensure we are truly at the forefront of this technology, we are working with our partners on manufacturing satellite terminals in Saudi Arabia. This is the next, small, step for the Kingdom’s burgeoning space industry — but a giant leap for our IR4.0 operations.