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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