Raising the Oil & Gas Industry’s Largest Pack of WatchDogs

Big news. AFTI WatchDog is Canada’s leading solution for Virtual Wellsite Monitoring.

We recently surpassed a major milestone. WatchDog now vigilantly monitors the production of 10,000 wells across Canada and counting… or approximately 1 of every 8 oil wells currently in production.

“It was a long but ultimately satisfying road to where we are today,” reflects Len Johnson, our Founder. “Lest any of our competitors think it was easy getting here, it wasn’t! It’s surprising how hard it is to create something simple with very high reliability. Like a great watch dog, we’ve earned the industry’s trust.”

Over the past 10 years, WatchDog® has evolved from a single sensor, low-cost oil well monitor into a powerful platform that provides oil producers with the ability to safely reduce the routine wellsite visit. We survived the often-turbulent market fluctuations of our industry and have proven the value of our solution time and time again.

Here’s the story of how we got here…

An Abridged History of the Development of AFTI WatchDog®

Back in 2012, AFTI introduced WatchDog to the oil market.

At first, WatchDog’s sole capability was monitoring the temperature of flowing oil. At that time, there was (and still is) a large industry addressing electronic well monitoring and control. Most solutions focus on monitoring and controlling higher-flow wells with sophisticated and expensive products. These sites represent the top 20% of Canada’s wells. At that time no one had designed a product suitable for the other 80%, the remaining 70,000 oil wells. Each one of these typically produces 10 barrels per day or less.

AFTI had its mission. We set out to create a new solution aimed at these mature, lower producing wells. Our lofty goal was to reduce or eliminate the requirement and associated cost for field personnel to visit each and every well site daily, which was the standard operating procedure across the entire industry at that time.

Physical inspection of oil wells was consuming 5-6 hours per day of a typical operator’s time. Each operator was assigned a group in the range of 40-60 wells to visit every day. Driving to check every well wasted tons of operator time and effort, especially when only 1-2 wells per day actually needed attention.

We started to dig deeper and asked how the wells could be “visited” virtually using an electronic device, from anywhere, at any time. We found value in challenging the operators to begin managing by exception (i.e. focusing only on problem wells). This seemed like a much more efficient way to utilize their precious time, which could be focused on fixing and optimizing instead.

In late 2012 we set out to define and then create a comprehensive WatchDog hardware unit to enable a complete “virtual wellsite visit”. This would provide more information in a fraction of the time when compared to the traditional on-site visit. In these early days, the limited capabilities of WatchDog prevented us from offering a complete solution. But the size of the opportunity was clear.

The Birth of WatchDog, a Wellsite’s Best Friend

We realized pretty quickly that our challenges would be both technical and behavioural.

On the technical side, WatchDog would need to be able to tell operators at producing companies:

  • If the pump was working
  • If fluid was being produced
  • If there has been a change in fluid production
  • Whether there was a leak in the area of the wellhead

We believed that this set of capabilities would make it practical for producers to switch from manual to Virtual Wellsite Visits. However, our solution needed to be affordable as well as effective. We needed to be able to do all this at a cost which made sense in an extremely price sensitive environment. Producers are very reluctant to incur cost on wells that produce less, so our promised payback had to be very attractive.

Figuring out how to show if there was a leak at the well site was particularly difficult. The only truly reliable way was to add a camera to the WatchDog unit at the wellsite. After looking around for a camera that was certified to run in hazardous areas and able to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations of the remote operating locations, we were unable to find an acceptable model. We decided to develop our own camera!

By early 2015, we had dramatically improved every aspect of WatchDog’s monitoring capability:

  • We advanced from monitoring a single variable (flow temperature), adding 8 additional surveillance points per wellsite
  • We built our operator portal, cleverly named K9
  • We created our patented Flow Confidence Algorithm and analytics
  • We developed our own communications platform from scratch
  • We eliminated the need to connect to on-site power, simplifying installation dramatically
  • We monitored the activity of the pump to know whether it was working
  • Our camera could tell if there was a leak at the wellhead
  • We monitored the pressure of the well’s tubing/casing
  • All this data could be stored in the cloud and accessed by operators at their fingertips

With early installs in place, we were ready to evangelize the benefits of our new vision to the industry!

Selling a New Operating Philosophy: the Virtual Wellsite Visit

That brought us to our behavioural challenge. This side of the equation was in some ways even more complex than our technical challenges.

The daily drive to the oil field was a time honoured and comfortable method for checking on wells. The Virtual Wellsite Visit concept we were selling was regarded not only as disruptive to well surveillance, but also deeply threatening to the actual people still driving to inspect their wells. They believed that WatchDog would make their jobs obsolete. We believed the opposite: that it would make their jobs more valuable, since more time could be devoted to fixing and optimizing to deliver superior results. For the head office, maintaining good relationships with field operations staff was/is critical, therefore some executives were reluctant to introduce such a radical new operating philosophy.

Fortunately for us, a few were curious. Some even wanted to try it! From initial pilots of 5 units or so, orders slowly grew to lots of 40-50 over the ensuing years:

  • 2016: We sold 400 units.
  • 2017: We hit 800.
  • 2018: By the end of the year, we had more than 3,000 WatchDogs deployed in remote wellsite monitoring applications. By then, producers had grown more comfortable with the Virtual Wellsite Visit concept. Field operators realized they weren’t going to be replaced by a box!
  • 2019: The herd decided to move. We released our updated WatchDog 4 that year, which provided the opportunity to reduce the price even further. This proved to be revolutionary. Our growth and customer support has been phenomenal ever since.
  • Today: 100+ producers across the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (and increasingly in the United States) are saving significant amounts of labor cost, increasing production, reducing equipment failures, and reducing the environmental impact of well head leaks and emissions from the tailpipe.

We’ve deployed a huge dog pack… but we’re far from done. Our vision for the Virtual Wellsite Visit and WatchDog, your best friend in the field, continues to evolve based on input from our great customers and industry we love.