Is Automated Drilling the Industry's Future?

The oil and gas industry has set the path to completely change how they will find natural resources. Since the beginning, drilling has been at the hands of humans, but this is about to change with the help of autonomous computer-controlled drilling operations – drilling automation.

Operators are continuously seeking ways of meeting their safety goal of zero people hurt on the job and reducing the costs of extracting hydrocarbons. Drilling automation seeks to do just that through process improvements, optimized rates of penetration, consistent hole quality and overall drilling performance, all of which allow operators to reach their objectives in the shortest time.

"Drilling is potentially dangerous, with rig staff and heavy machinery operating in the same tight space," said Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell Plc executive who's leading a graduate-level engineering program at the University of Texas focused on automated drilling. "So why not let machines do the hazardous work?"

Automation has been widely used in several industries: aeronautics, automobile manufacturing, utility and power generation and general processing. Some may argue that these industries improved drastically when humans were partially taken out of the equation. Automation allows for repetition to occur without suffering from boredom or lapses in attention that its human counterparts are capable of. Robots are able to attain a level of autonomy because there are few decisions to make and there is little uncertainty or variability in their environment and tasks.

And with the 2010 Macondo disaster never too far from an operator's mind, automation is crucial. Algorithms can detect changes in rig data consistently and quickly, preventing problems early on. There's also a pressing challenge to drill more efficiently.

"The 'easy oil' is diminishing, which means the cost of extracting hydrocarbons is going up," stated Jim Rogers, automation advisor, worldwide drilling for Apache Corp, in a recent interview. "We have to find ways to reduce that cost, and we have to find step-change ways of doing that. We're not looking for just incremental changes. Instead of 16 days on a well, let's go to 10 days or even less. You have to do something fundamentally different and that is going to cause a business-model change. There is no way around it. People have to do things differently than they're doing it now."

And differently they are. Recently, Norway's Robotic Drilling Systems AS, formerly Seabed Rig, developed an innovative autonomous robotic drilling rig for unmanned drilling operations. The company claims that the new system, Robotic Drilling System (RDS), sets new standards with increased safety and cost-effective planning and drilling and can be implemented on existing, as well as new drilling structures, both offshore and on land. The company has taken their product a step further by signing an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover what it might learn from the rover Curiosity.

Currently, the RDS utilizes autonomous robotic working operations that can be remotely controlled from an interactive 3D interface, which NASA has done for quite some time. The Mars rover is designed to collect data and take action on its own based on programmed reasoning. The industry is looking to replicate NASA's technological success by making drill bits more intelligent and able to respond instantly to any conditions they may encounter.

"You're seeing a new track in the industry emerging," said van Oort. "This is going to blossom."

However, many in the industry argue that automation cannot be applied to drilling because it is an art form that needs human guidance.

"The business model is mostly driven by the operator," said Rogers. "For contractors and service companies, their business model has traditionally been centered on a day rate service. They don't have much of a motivation to change, but they will have to."

As many would agree, in order for the industry to see growth, changes will have to occur.

"Service providers and drilling contractors will have to adjust their business model," he lamented. "How they view it will determine how successful they will be. There were companies in the process control industry that struggled against this change, and they saw double-digit market shares go down to single digits."

"All industries have unique problems," said Rogers. "Sure, some of drilling's challenges and issues are a little bit different, but many of them are common to other industries. Don't focus on the different ones, focus on the common ones and let's make some progress."


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Generated by readers, the comments included herein do not reflect the views and opinions of Rigzone. All comments are subject to editorial review. Off-topic, inappropriate or insulting comments will be removed.
Syamsul Arifin | Jan. 2, 2013
Looking forward to see if this robotic drilling system will work out well on the field. Probably it will take a lot of time to perfecting it operation. Will this be another "black swan" of the oil field, or just another "creative invention" that will be not applicable on field..? I appreciate the engineers (& company) who build/develop this; and also appreciate the guys whom had doing this job for many years!

dlw | Jan. 2, 2013
Amoco wanted to simulate (pre-spud) wells using geologic data and drilling bit performance. The logic was you can simulate airplanes. Problem: Actually more variables than ever considered or practical to model. How will you accomodate worn seals in a tool? Gauled threads on a tool joint? Interference of moving equipment? stabilizer blades falling off? You "will" have human intervention and maintenance issues that require as many people but of another skill. Modern automatic pipe handling and 6th gen pipe handling systems are still slower than a good driller and a man in the derrick. And heaven forbid you get to an operation that has not been simulated or a step in your completions that requires an elevator changeout!

Digger | Jan. 2, 2013
Would that be "I got my hand caught in the chain and oft went my fingers"? A lot of work has been done. Only downside compared to automation in a typical plant is that the drilling plant tends to move a lot with wear and tear on instruments and wiring in harsh conditions. 100% yes to good automation and robotics - increased efficiency and safety!

gwr | Jan. 2, 2013
how about replacing the book worms that havent worked hard or gotten dirty or the work over hands that dont belong here anyway.As far as the new hands--- werent you ever a new roughneck or did you already know it all. Just remember we all have to make a living.Ive been here working for over 44 yrs. and Im not ready for my rocking chair yet,and yes I have broken out my share of new hands and do not mind if they are willing to work.As far as injurys they happen in all jobs.

R. Morgan | Jan. 2, 2013
I have been working on 5th/6th generation semis/ drillships for over 5 years and efficient is not a word that comes to mind. These new cyber drilling rigs are all haunted with software, electrical and mechanical glitches and failures. For years it has been known that labor is one of the cheapest expenses in offshore drilling but they are continuously trying to phase us out. This is only about companies like Robotic Drilling Systems trying to cash in on oil money. You should see in person how well this automated equipment works that comes out of Norway from companies like Aker Solutions and NOV. It is nothing short of comical !!!

Scott Petrie | Jan. 2, 2013
To make Automation on rigs a reality there must be an ecconomic driver. These include from first principles the distibution of knowlege over a larger data set. People and knowlege could be used more efficiently by combining automation with rael time data and rig control centers. This means reduction in crew sizes, reduction in personnel insurance costs. It does not mean there wont be jobs for rig workers. We still need people to control, monitor and maintain these systems. It will mean the increase in efficiency of an industry which is stuck in the stone age.

Ashraf Saadeh | Jan. 1, 2013
Change is a must in order to improve overall drilling performance and optimized rates of penetration as drilling solutions have almost reached the end, I believe Robotic Drilling System is a good idea however we still need human guidance and experience as in drilling you will face variable unexpected obstacles, Automation System canít handle that due to the limited information programmed in it.

Ron Anderson | Jan. 1, 2013
Automated drilling has been a long time coming and I, for one, am glad to see it happening. The operators have been talking safety a long time but still hire rigs that should never be allowed to operate. One of the other problems is a twenty year span (1986 to 2006) where very little new blood was hired and now we have a shortage of experienced personnel. We drillers took the risks as part of the job. It should not have to be that way. Money is the driving force behind oil and that is as it should be. Robotics is not going to make it cheaper, just more efficient and safer. Its about damn time.

xpatnola | Jan. 1, 2013
GWR---the people who pay for it will always be the consumer, just the way it is now. Its just the jobs in the field that will change. Its hard to say based on this article how far that will go, but the new roughneck will be the robot operator, and I can see floor operations narrowed down to two or three people. I work for a major service company, running MWD/LWD since 94. Im in the TX panhandle now, and Ive been all over the US, Canada and Alaska. Ive always had huge respect for the floorhands, and always thought you were underpaid for what you do. But sure as flex rigs replaced kelly rigs, change is gonna come. Either get on that train or get out of the way.

Darren Heal | Jan. 1, 2013
Automated drilling is not a new idea. The RA-D (Rig Automation - Drilling) joint industry program of the 1980s / 90s showed some way forward and a RA-D rig was built at the Bridge of Don drilling school in Aberdeen. Th RA-D failed to deliver primarily because it relied on "strongbacks" to store drill pipe off the drill floor, eating up valuable topside acreage and weight capacity. Financing was pulled due to the depressed price of oil in the late 90s and that was that. Taking the human out of the drilling process isnt going to happen any time soon, but integrated mechanization of drill pipe and casing handling could have a dramatic effect in reducing lost finger type accidents and expert systems and "intellegent" drilling will reduce accidents caused by unexpected downhole conditions.

| Jan. 1, 2013
Days of tongs bangin against drillpipe,the throwin a spinning chain,and the sound of a derrickman latching a stand of drillpipe? is going to be a thing of the past to bad and very very sad?? "OLD SCHOOL" and good men to be replaced by computers and computer geeks?? who in the years to come will talk "S--T" about how tough there job is??? YEP?? its all about the evil $$$$ goodbye to all these good payin jobs??? Yall might as well strike from the oilfield termanalogy the words,ROUGHNECK,MOTORMAN,DERRICKMAN,DRILLER,TOOLPUSHER,and espically the term word "OFT" and if you dont know what it stands for then you Damn sure have never worked on a old Mech Kelly Drilling Rig??

GWR | Jan. 1, 2013
Sure why not lay everyone off and let robots work,whos paying your bills. Whos going to pay for all the robots , and repairs on them.The only answer I come up with is the consumer.


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