Drilling automation

These Are the Forks in the Road to Drilling Automation

Along its journey to full-automation, the US drilling sector is facing a series of important crossroads that will determine what the so-called “rig of the future” really will be.


The low price of crude may have slowed the advance of drilling automation technology, but it clearly has not stopped it. Uptake is rising, chiefly in the US onshore market, where contractors including Nabors and Precision Drilling have recently rolled out their first batch of “closed-loop” automated rigs that take key pieces of the well construction process out of human hands.

Service giant Schlumberger is doing the same after it acquired a number of drilling technology firms in recent years, including one that developed rig control systems for the competition—a factor that has been seen as incentivizing other drilling contractors to accelerate their automated ambitions.

The introduction of these new rig systems comes at an opportune time for contractors because US demand for high-performance rigs is rising at its fastest clip since the downturn began. The swelling rig count is being met with a shortage of qualified hands, another factor adding momentum to the adoption of rig automation.

“I do not think that the traditional means of training lots and lots of people will fly anymore because you get a variable output, and it costs a lot of money,” said John de Wardt of the current drilling environment. “If you can buy an automated drilling system, then you save a lot of money on people and training—and you know it will do what you want to do.”

De Wardt, a Colorado-based oil and gas consultant, is the program manager for the Drilling Systems Automation (DSA) roadmap initiative that was created to guide the industry’s technology development strategy through 2025. Launched in 2013 as an all-volunteer initiative, the DSA has since become a 10-member joint industry project formed by a different group of companies than those mentioned above, including Shell, Saudi Aramco, National Oilwell Varco (NOV), and Halliburton.

As the various players in the automation arena ramp up their development work and early-­commercialization efforts, the DSA roadmap shows that the industry is still a ways off from the final destination of fully autonomous rigs—the nuanced view would describe today’s newest advanced drilling assets as semi-autonomous.

To get to greater autonomy, the industry must decide which way to go on what de Wardt refers to as “the forks in the road.” These are the key technological decisions that he said will determine what form drilling automation takes going forward.

A few of the most important include whether companies should invest in interoperable systems or proprietary ones; open software or black box programming; low-rate mud-pulse data communications or high-speed hardwired pipe; keep retrofitting or begin designing purpose-built automated rigs.

Forks in the Software Road

From the view of the roadmap, one of the shortest routes to full automation can be taken if equipment manufacturers embrace interoperability so their various hardware and software products can work and communicate together. This would encourage uptake by giving end-users more flexibility in the integration of an automated solution.

This is also easier said than done because, “Our industry has fostered 100% competitiveness,” de Wardt said in explaining that the challenge of implementing interoperability is not technical, it is managerial.

Drawing on the experience of the industrial automation sector, he told how a similar tug-of-war played out between companies who sought to secure market share with proprietary systems and those that assumed an agnostic approach to data communication.

“In the end, the open system people won,” de Wardt said. Companies that placed the right bet, such as Fortune 500-listed Emerson Electric, became leaders in the sector while proprietary-system makers faded out of the picture. This question over interoperability also reshaped the auto-industry whose biggest firms decided to agree on key standards and compete on their ability to innovate.

“As an industry, we’re still trying to get our heads around what is the collaboration piece, and what is the competition piece,” said de Wardt. “If we get that right, then we will progress far faster than we are today.”

In a similar vein, automation developers must decide if their software will be open for customers to validate and integrate with add-on programing. The alternative is black box software that does not show its math. To create some middle ground on this issue, the DSA roadmap’s recommendation is to create a non­competing certification body that can sign off on such software products.

“What we are saying is that if people have black boxes that give outputs that can improve the performance of the human on the rig or goes into the rig’s control system, a validation methodology would allow them to tell customers that an authority has confirmed its reliability,” said de Wardt. “It will need some description around what its limitations are, and overviews of how it does it, without giving away proprietary information, and today, that is not done.”

The Hardware Decisions

Another bellwether to watch in the automation race is which telemetry and data communication systems will win out. For example, NOV’s wired drillpipe has a data rate of 50,000 bps, but the downside of the technology is that it has been cost-prohibitive for many. The company is working to bring the price down by stepping up its manufacturing, while others are trying to push the limits of low-bandwidth mud-pulse, electro-magnetic, and acoustic telemetry systems that transmit data at 40–80 bps.

De Wardt said developers are quietly working on “clever ways” to improve mud-pulse telemetry systems to a point where they can be used to expand downhole automation capabilities, as opposed to surface-controlled automation via wired pipe.

“The question is, which of these systems will predominate and what is their price point. That will determine how the automation map looks,” in the years to come, said de Wardt.

As the timeline expands, the drilling sector will be contemplating whether to redesign the drilling rig from the bottom up as a natively automated system—effectively, to make it a drilling robot.

While the DSA does not see retrofitting existing rigs as the most valuable option, it is the most attractive for now. Rig demand in the US is far from recovering to 2014 levels, and may never do so, but de Wardt reminded that the industry has a long tradition of avoiding the obsoleting of such capital-intensive assets.

What these companies and their customers are weighing is the known value of the current top-tier rig inventory against the potential value of a purpose-built automated fleet.

“In the US drilling market, with its very high performance, that gap is small,” de Wardt said, highlighting the point that in recent years human drillers have realized major gains in efficiencies, significantly raising the bar on what the next level of automated rigs must offer to justify investment.

The DSA Roadmap Initiative held its most recent workshop in April where a 250-page draft report produced by industry experts was presented to members. It highlights the size and scope of the work involved. An industry workshop organized by the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) will be held in Houston in January 2018 to add input to the draft report, which will guide companies through the next 8 years of technology development and implementation. The DSA has also launched a second round of project funding and is seeking new members to join and share access to the current report rather than wait until next year. Moving forward, the DSA roadmap initiative will include the workshop organized by the IADC while the SPE DSATS group will be the key body charged with maintaining and distributing the technical reports produced through the workshops.