Extreme IT: Hurricanes, High Winds and Heavy Seas

Wireless Over Water

What's the biggest challenge you face?

Gibson: Trying to do wireless communications over water. Moving voice and data via wireless connectivity over water poses a lot of difficulties. The technology is there, but it can be done with greater reliability in other environments than in the tropical environment we have here in the Gulf.

For one thing, the heat is a big concern. All of our systems are in controlled environments, of course, but we have to ensure that those environments are operating on a daily basis. Summer temperatures are in the mid- to upper 90s, and the equipment on the platforms is surrounded by steel, which heats up in the sun and magnifies the effect.

Salt's another issue. When we transport equipment, it's subjected to salt air. The salt attaches itself to the circuitry and corrodes it.

But probably our biggest problems with the environment have to do with [specific weather conditions]. In the spring and fall, we have a lot of issues with fog. The network relies primarily on microwave communications, and weather conditions can disrupt the signal between two physical connection points and cause our networks to fade in and out. Rain, too, can cause fading issues with our backup satellite systems.

We also have temperature-inversion problems. With the Mississippi River bringing cold water down from the north and dumping it into the warm water of the Gulf, it causes a lot of temperature inversions [when warmer air sits on top of cooler air]. They distort the microwave frequencies, so the connections drop in and out.

And then there's lightning -- that causes us a lot of trouble on our offshore installations. We've got a steel platform sitting out in the middle of the open ocean, so it attracts lightning. If you're not properly grounded -- and grounding equipment to a facility and then grounding the facility itself is definitely a challenge -- you can lose your equipment entirely.

Is the wave motion a problem?

Gibson: For our shelf platforms, that's not really a concern. Those are fixed-leg platforms -- they're sitting on the sea floor. But our deepwater facilities are primarily floaters, and microwave communications need a fixed line of sight. We have been able to establish microwave communications using a floating facility, but it does have its issues.

There's a new technology we're looking at deploying that we hope will help fix these issues. It uses a stabilized antenna mount that will actually move with the platform. It's an approach that's already used in VSAT communications. Cruise liners, for example, have stabilized units that stay locked onto the satellite no matter how the boat is moving. This would act in the same manner -- as the platform moves, the mount for the microwave dish would compensate and hold its line of sight with whatever it's shooting to.

What about the hurricanes?

Gibson: Hurricanes are events that pass through and in a few days, they're gone. Sometimes they wreak havoc, and sometimes they don't. But they're weather events that pass through, unlike the other, ongoing issues.

When we have weather events, whether it's a major hurricane or a simple thunderstorm, we just have to wait for them to move out of the way so we can get back out there to assess what just happened to us. First, we have to see if the platform still exists. Then, the high winds -- even from a thunderstorm -- may have blown the microwave antennas right off the platform, or just blown them out of alignment to the next platform. We might have to go back out and reposition the dish.

When that happens, do you have to go out and physically inspect each one, or is there another way to determine what the problem is?

Gibson: That's a tough question. It all depends on the platform. If the platform has a backup communications system, typically a satellite system, we're able to see the platform and make some assessment of what just happened to the primary communications. Naturally, you want to make just one trip with all the right equipment.

But not all platforms have satellite backups. So if there are still personnel out there, we'll rely on them to tell us -- we'll ask them to go look at it and try to describe what it looks like, so we can make some determination and then make a trip out.

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