Drilling automation

Drive for Automation Leads to Marriage of NOV and Schlumberger Software

The two companies have agreed to team up so their most-valued drilling-automation programs can be used together easily. The relationship has shined a bright light on drilling automation.

Two drilling rigs photographed from directly above, Cromarty Firth, Scotland, United Kingdom
Credit: Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images.

The largest makers of drilling-automation controls, NOV and Schlumberger, have agreed to collaborate to ensure their software and equipment work seamlessly together.

The partners described it as a “collaboration to accelerate automated drilling.”

“We are pleased to collaborate with NOV and to integrate their rig-automation interface with our drilling-automation solutions to unlock higher performance for operators and drilling contractors,” said Olivier Le Peuch, Schlumberger’s chief executive officer. He said the partnership “will help accelerate customers’ adoption of drilling-automation technologies, enabling superior well-construction performance.”

At the heart of the deal is NOV’s NOVOS rig-automation platform. The partners will work to ensure its ability to run Schlumberger’s DrillOps applications smoothly. The products of years of advanced drilling-automation research and development, the applications control a wide variety of functions, such as rate of penetration and weight on bit.

This is a plus for NOVOS, which was designed to facilitate the creation of drilling applications, similar to the iPhone’s ability to run a universe of apps. But the applications were limited because they had to be written using the company’s proprietary code.

For Schlumberger, the collaboration offers easy access to customers of NOV, the biggest maker of drilling hardware.

For companies in the digital drilling community with competing automation products, the question of the day is how serious this relationship is.

One observer of the scene, John de Wardt, who has worked on a drilling-automation roadmap, said he sees it as a potentially valuable relationship but not an exclusive one.

“It is a collaboration where Schlumberger seems to have access to the NOVOS footprint and NOV gets additional apps to apply to their system,” he said.

“I believe SLB when they say they are still open to running their apps on other platforms, including, of course, their own. Limiting to NOVOS would limit the spread of their own system and services,” deWardt said.

A LinkedIn post of his, which quoted the Schlumberger release announcing the collaboration, asked, “Is the drilling industry now passing the tipping point on application of drilling-systems automation?”

A major barrier to automation has been the time and skill required to connect equipment built by companies whose designs limit interconnections with competitors’ products. Those tactics range from incompatible pipe connections to proprietary code.

NOV stood out in that conversation because it is by far the biggest rig equipment maker.

When SPE’s Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) held a symposium on interoperability in 2018, the talk focused on the lack of progress toward the group’s goal to put together digitally controlled drilling systems as easily as building a PC using off-the-shelf parts.

At the time, Frank Springett, who was then vice president of engineering for drilling control systems at NOV, countered that such a business, where equipment sales are measured in the thousands rather than the millions of units sold by consumer electronics companies, requires a different business model.

Springett said in a JPT story that a hefty investment in automation could only be justified if equipment sales benefitted from improved performance.

After the DSATS meeting, those pushing for open systems began looking for other ways to advance change.

“DSATS has focused on data interoperability for years but without much traction. In 2018, Darryl Fett of Total stepped up to organize work groups to deal with this important problem facing those involved in automation,” said Fred Florence, a drilling consultant who helped expand the base of support.

The result is a group known as D-WIS, which stands for Drilling and Wells Interoperability Standards. The decision to create it was made at a meeting held the Friday morning after the 2020 SPE/IADC International Drilling Conference and Exhibition in March 2020.

Splitting off from SPE has allowed it to begin developing standards by affiliating with the Open Group’s OSDU Forum. OSDU, which began as the Open Subsurface Data Universe, continues to identify itself using the acronym as it broadens its work to open digital standards throughout the industry.

The March gathering in Galveston, Texas, was one of the last face-to-face shows before COVID-19 caused mass shutdowns that triggered the most recent oil industry crash during a brutal 6-year stretch for drillers and their suppliers.

Selling open standards “was a difficult conversation for a long time. People worried about market share,” said Fett, manager of research drilling and wells for Total and the program director for D-WIS, in an interview before the announcement of the creation of D-WIS.

But, as drilling automation takes over more functions on rigs, sellers are hearing the calls from operators for equipment that can be interconnected easily.

“We are talking about shifting attitudes toward open software solutions,” Fett said.

D-WIS leaders are trying to strike a tricky balance. Equipment makers need to be able to create unique control systems using exclusive algorithms, so the group has focused on communication standards allowing these different devices to work together in an automation system.

“It is about getting the right data from the right place to an algorithm or a decision maker, and [sending back an] answer to the system that would take the action,” Fett said.