Drilling Automation: Are We There Yet?
Drilling automation is not “there” yet, but it no longer seems like a pipe dream.
Predictions about how technology will evolve a decade from now are likely to be wrong.
In 2012, a group of 120 drilling and automation experts at an SPE workshop in Vail, Colorado, wrote a statement predicting what automated drilling would look like in 2025.
After working through the issues over 3 days in groups, they agreed on a short statement that offers a useful yardstick for how far the industry has progressed in the 9 years since.
Drilling automation is a dream that is just beginning to be realized. Since 2012, it has progressed further than many people thought possible back then.
The workshop participants, 30% of whom were from outside the oil industry—including the operator for the Mars Rover that was then on its journey to the planet—spent a weekend arguing about the future and crafted a vision statement summarizing what drilling will look like in 2025.
At the time, the statement seemed like a pipe dream to a lot of folks, said John de Wardt, who co-chaired the workshop. Since then he has tracked how drilling automation has evolved as the person in charge of the Drilling Automation Roadmap, an effort backed by the SPE Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) that lays out what needs to be done to make automation a reality and provides information about the work already done.
Based on what he has been seeing lately, he thinks the predictions by the people at the workshop are looking good. “In another 4 years, I am beginning to believe this thing” will look pretty accurate.
He is also aware there are those who contend the skeptics got it right. Those conflicting views will likely come up at a presentation about the vision statement which is on the agenda of the seminar DSATS will hold before the 2022 IADC/SPE International Drilling Conference in March in Galveston, Texas.
“That should be an interesting debate, as some have told me it is coming true and others push back in absolute terms,” de Wardt said.
Sentence by Sentence
Right or wrong, the statement offers a workable checklist for what must be done for drilling automation to become a reality.
A close reading of the statement reveals a huge amount of change packed in every sentence.
By 2025 DSATS predicted rigs for which “well plans are uploaded into an interoperable drilling system that automatically delivers a quality wellbore into the best geological location.” So far, automation’s impact is more focused. There is growing use of programs that directly control certain critical functions such as directional drilling or tripping. More functions are being added over time, informed by increasing amounts of digital data analysis.
The next step is difficult: integrating all the automated functions to ensure maximum performance. The performance of a highly automated rig, such as the Nabors PaceR801, is based on how well it coordinates a complex sequence of steps.
Adding the adjective “interoperable” in the first sentence of the vision statement is a reminder that changes are required of the service companies in the drilling equipment business. They must create equipment that can work smoothly with the products made by competitors.
A major land driller like Nabors that can rely on its Canrig unit for key components has the capability of using its own equipment to ease integration. But most rigs are built using parts built on proprietary systems from multiple equipment makers. Those putting the systems together have to figure out how to deal with the differences.
On the plus side, equipment makers, which long resisted change, are now supporting work to create the tools to allow open communication and connections.
A group called D-WIS is working on bridging that gap. Its initiatives include creating an open communication standard for data and commands with ODSU, which is working on similar industry efforts spanning the life of a well. Use of the machine language will be voluntary; pressure from buyers will be required to change the business model.
The second sentence of the vision statement said a rig in 2025 “installs the casing and zonal isolation according to plan, installs the completion system according to the program, and updates remote operators and experts in real time to changes in the situation and identifies potential paths for success for the experts to input control.”
This unwieldy sentence can be parsed into three, each of which features a major idea.
The automation in completions has been focused on digital control of pressure pumping to ensure more consistent results and quick reactions to changing conditions, with little work on automated casing handling.
But that is beginning to change. Nabors’ automated robot pipe handler can also handle casing, as can an automated onshore rig designed by Huisman for a Shell-CNPC joint venture, the HM 100 series (SPE 202812).
Based on runs on a Huisman test well in the Netherlands, the HM 100 series is many times faster than conventional casing handling, said Arthur De Mul, product manager of modular rigs for Huisman. It has yet to be used on a well in the field.
The second and third sentences of the vision statement both touch on remote monitoring. “Deep, complex wells will rely more heavily on centers of excellence on site and remote to provide real-time and near-real-time updates. Routine multiple wells will rely on remote operations centers to monitor progress and react to alarms.”
That prediction seems to be coming true ahead of schedule. Remote operation centers are increasingly important onshore and offshore. Their roles will exceed 2012 predictions.
The industry is working on remote centers to control offshore operations, reducing the number of personnel on platforms, and allowing a single specialist to work in multiple fields. Onshore centers now include directional drilling experts offering advice to drillers as they monitor the work controlled by automated directional control systems.
The rapid advance in digital data analysis is a big change largely missed by the 2012 statement, which will shape digital drilling operations.
2012 SPE Workshop Vision Statement
This vision statement developed at an SPE workshop in 2012 was adopted as part of the Drilling Systems Automation Roadmap.
“In 2025, well plans are uploaded into an interoperable drilling system that automatically delivers a quality wellbore into the best geological location, installs the casing and zonal isolation according to plan, installs the completion system according to the program, updates remote operators and experts in real time to changes in the situation, and identifies potential paths for success for the experts to input control.
Deep, complex wells will rely more heavily on centers of excellence onsite and remote to provide real-time and near-real-time updates.
Routine multiple wells will rely on remote operations centers to monitor progress and react to alarms.”
The authors of the vision statement had the wisdom to reduce their risk of error by setting two goals for the system of the future—building quality wellbores in the best geological location—both of which are hard to define and even harder to quantify.
But at least those ambiguous statements raised questions that need to be answered to define a quality wellbore along the most productive well path.