Drilling Automation – TWL Issue 1

Drilling Automation: Not a Theory Anymore

Written By: Narendra Vishnumolakala

Put simply, automation is the replacement of human labor by machines. Since the Industrial Revolution, there have been innumerable technological advances used to help humans work more efficiently. From the simple use of pulley systems to highly sophisticated Human-Robot Interactions (HRI), many industries have been quick to adopt these advancements, while some have progressed at a slower pace.

Two examples that really stand out are the aviation and automotive industries. Both have achieved high levels of automation in their processes, so why not in the case of oil and gas drilling? Perhaps it’s all the years where drilling was considered an art based on experience rather than science, effectively creating a lag in the adaptation of automation. Just recently, though, the industry has seen rapid changes in terms of drilling automation – where completely automated drilling systems are becoming a reality.

Why automation?

The main objective for any driller is to simultaneously drill fast and drill safe, ensuring quick and accurate execution. Typically, drilling faster means less time spent drilling, which in turn works to reduce costs. At the same time, though, people are a company’s most valuable asset and keeping their wellbeing intact is of the utmost importance.  These objectives can be achieved and maximized with the introduction of automated drilling rigs.

With respect to efficiency, there are many drawbacks in the manual drilling process, mostly because of the constraints on human labor. Most drilling rigs are located in harsh environments, which produce considerable amount of stress on the people working there. The combined effect of an employee’s workload, stress and fatigue affect performance creating a greater chance for human error. In an automated system, those same limitations are essentially eliminated and drastically reduce the occurrence of such errors.  When it comes down to it, an automated system is faster, more reliable, and more consistent compared to human operations – none of which compare to its positive impact on human safety.

Safety is the most important aspect of drilling automation. Automating a drilling rig means performing the drilling activities with the help of automated control systems rather than human labor. This results in a reduction of the number of people on the rig floor, away from the process area. Clearly, drilling automation helps to keep humans safer.

Drilling as a whole is a very complex process with several key sub-activities such as the rotary, pipe racking, pumping, cementing, casing, and directional drilling systems (etc.). These systems contain several parameters for the driller and his crew to monitor and control. An automated system can ultimately provide better control over these parameters.  The importance of control in these systems are felt even more during an emergency because of the ability to immediate recognize abnormalities – just another factor helping to keep humans out of harm’s way.

Where are we now?

Automation in the drilling industry is relatively less advanced compared to other industries. The main reason for this can be attributed to the fact that drilling activity takes place in extreme working conditions, above ground in unhospitable areas and downhole with high temperature, high pressure (HTHP) formations. It’s also important to note that the drilling process is not standard for all wells – where every wellbore’s construction is unique in its own way. Therefore, the modeling of this process cannot be definite, but, instead has to be adaptive. All of these contributing factors make automation in drilling a difficult task. However, with each technological advancement, these limitations are being overcome. It’s also no surprise that the recent boom in unconventional reservoirs is adding more motivation for transitioning into automation.

What’s the hold up?

Completely unlike the automotive or aviation industries, one of the greatest things holding industry back is the lack of a common communication protocol or standards pertaining to drilling automation.  This is primarily due to the highly segmented nature of the drilling industry where we must deal with multiple service companies, rig contractors, equipment manufacturers, etc. With increased well complexity, the data handling between all systems has become more difficult, and is a major problem within the various dissimilar systems.

 Apart from the digital infrastructure, the availability of proper instrumentation devices has also hindered progress. Special sensors and other devices are required in the drilling process because 1) the sensors are required to provide real-time data, and 2) many measurements are made in sub-surface environments.

Who is working on it?

The International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) in Norway, an independent research institute, has assembled a team led by Dr. Eric Cayeux, who is the leader in the field of drilling automation. This team has developed an automated drilling system called ‘DrillTronics’ intended to be used in drilling conventional plays. It’s important to note that the group is gaining traction with industry leaders – specifically Statoil (who is all set to be the first company to utilize this technology).  NOV, Apache, and Shell are among the other companies attempting to design and implement automated drilling systems. 

The University of Texas in Austin is also leading the charge with its exclusive drilling automation research team headed up by Dr. Eric Van Oort.  And, not too long ago, NOV helped out by donating a $2.7 million, state-of-the-art drilling rig simulator to the university.

SPE and the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) are also working towards bringing automation in drilling to market in the near future. SPE has a specific technical section aimed at these advancements – termed the SPE DSATS (Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section).  The focus here is on standardizing communication protocol for the industry. The two current standards being considered are namely WITSML and UPC. IADC has crafted a committee working on comprehensive automation of the drilling process alongside the integration of surface and down-hole systems.

What to expect.

The next decade is likely to have even more exciting advancements in this field of technology, especially with the current research going on.  At this rate, it can safely be said that drilling automation is not a theory anymore and is fast becoming a reality. It’s not an overstatement to say that in the near future, drilling a well will soon be like playing a video game!


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