BP Pioneers Large-Scale Use of Wireless Sensor Networks

BP PLC's wireless sensor network program began with a two-day technology immersion session for the company's top executives in May 2003. Less than two years later, these sophisticated networks are one of the oil and gas giant's cornerstone strategies for transforming business processes, from increasing supply chain visibility and inventory control to monitoring sensitive pumps and compressors on oil tankers plying the North Sea.

"The idea was to open their minds to possibilities," says Chief Technology Officer Phiroz "Daru" Darukhanavala of the technology sessions for BP's top brass. "Once you open the right executives' minds to possibilities, they tend to grab on to an idea and move it along more than IT could ever push it along."

Consider BP's liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) business, which is pilot testing RFID sensors to track the whereabouts and condition of some 35,000 refillable cylinders of gas used for domestic cooking by customers in Denmark. By the end of this year, a Europewide rollout is slated to begin, with RFID-tagged cylinders becoming mainstream throughout BP's worldwide LPG business.

The London-based company is also remotely monitoring its industrial customers' LPG tank fill levels, using battery-powered ultrasonic sensors that transmit information by radio signal to a low Earth orbit satellite, which relays the data to BP for timely deliveries. The technology, co-developed with Londonderry, Northern Ireland-based Andronics Ltd., is operational on about 200 tanks in England and is being deployed across Europe.

Previously, neither customers nor BP had an accurate way to gauge how much LPG remained in one of the large tanks, and BP would receive lots of last-minute panic calls from customers who had run out unexpectedly. Using the sensor network, the LPG business has improved delivery efficiency by over 33%, according to Ken Douglas, director of technology and sensory networks.

Sensors are also helping BP track the whereabouts and condition of its railroad tanker cars, which transport some 45,000 chemical shipments annually—each valued at about $100,000. In a pilot test last year, BP attached a black box with sensors and a GPS transponder to 21 tanker rail cars in North America. The system captures data on the car's location and temperature, and whether it has been tampered with. The information is transmitted via satellite to a control center, where it can be accessed via the Internet by BP and its customers. The system will eventually include 500 rail cars.

"We always do a pilot, because in virtually all of these cases, we're breaking new ground," Darukhanavala says. "You need to work the pilot and build confidence and assure yourself that the benefits are really there."

Another tip: "It is absolutely necessary that you use an ecosystem of suppliers because no one is smart enough to do it all," he says.

BP's network supplier "ecosystem" includes some 60 companies, each with a different specialty. "What my [internal IT] team does is nurture the executives' ideas forward and help to bring the ecosystem together. It's a technology-transfer function," Darukhanavala says.

There is no question that BP is way ahead of the curve, says Marlene Bourne, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, a high-tech research firm. "Other [sensor] applications are definitely showing signs of progress, but it will be several years before we see ubiquitous commercial applications," she says.



Business: The world’s largest oil concern operates in 100 countries and is the largest oil and gas producer in the U.S. Its 2003 revenue was $233 billion.

Project champion: Phiroz Darukhanavala

IT resources: About 2,000

Project payback: Among other uses, BP’s state-of-the-art networks can track LPG tank fill levels, improving delivery efficiency by over 33%.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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