September 2020

Drilling Advances

Cloudy, but plowing ahead
Jim Redden / Contributing Editor

A friend sent a bon mot last month that probably resonates with what many of us are feeling these days: “Gonna ask my mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still on the table.”

Flippancy aside, while 2021 is clouded with uncertainties, given the relentlessness of Covid-19 and the demand destruction left in its path, the general sentiment is that it has to be an improvement over the year now on its final legs. That is certainly the hope of the drilling contractors and service companies still standing after nine months of operators largely slashing budgets and jobs, especially in the U.S. unconventional sector.

Yet, even as drilling rigs for the better part of 2020 have been about as much in demand as a liquid mud plant on Martha’s Vineyard, efforts are still being made to ensure that those managing to find work, going forward, will be equipped with the very latest in automated and digitalized technologies.

“With Covid, we’ve encountered new challenges with logistics, in getting personnel to and from drilling installations, getting personnel across international borders, (dealing with) the quarantine laws and so forth,” said Andrew McKenzie, director
of Robotics, Automation and new ProductDevelopment for National Oilwell Varco (NOV). “These are challenges that are driving us to do more with fewer people.”

McKenzie joined contemporaries in the drilling automation development space this summer, to optimistically lay out their visions for the rig of the future to a virtual audience at the IADC Drilling Engineering Committee’s (DEC) quarterly technical forum in Houston. Those visions ranged from processes that advance rigs as digitalization platforms to control the entire drilling process, to technology that automatically maintains a more constant rig power load. “Our vision of what the rig of the future will look like, I have to believe will include significant advances in pipe handling capabilities,” says Nabors V.P. of Rig Automation and Downhole Tools Scott Boone. “Robotics will change the way crews operate the rig, and we’ll see much more sequenced automation of rig operations and more digitalization of all rig operations, from the planning piece in the back office to the execution on the rig, and will support standardized workflows for continuous improvement.”

Digital journey. Nabors’s “digital journey” began in 2017, focusing on robotic pipe handling and enabling software that were integrated with the rig in an attempt “to eliminate people on the rig floor.”  Today, the contractor’s DrillSmart Technology package, which it describes as comprising “patented technology and proprietary equations and advanced algorithms that mimic intuitive decision-making by experienced drilling personnel,” has been integrated on its North American fleet. 

“It’s really been a digital journey for us that has demanded we evaluate all the workflows of the operations, to fully understand how to fully automate and optimize processes,” Boone said. “It starts with a digital well plan that combines all the data on the well to be drilled with information required to operate the rig.”

Covid interrupts. For Schlumberger, a similar journey was derailed in March by the Covid-provoked downturn. The company had built two prototype automated rigs and drilled five Permian basin test wells before pulling the plug when market conditions deteriorated. “Hopefully, when the market comes back, it will allow us to reactivate the program,” Luis Hernandez, business development manager for Digital Drilling Solutions, told the June forum. Three months later, a still-sour climate prompted Schlumberger to sell off its North American fracing business.

“Trying to understand the needs of the future is no easy task,” Hernandez said. “The main aspect that we need to convey for drilling programs of the future is that the rig must evolve into a platform for integration, that the platform be connected to its environment at all times and have a means of processing data and generating value from it.”

Rather than engineering a robot for a specific function, McKenzie said NOV’s approach is to develop an easily integrated  multi-task robotic system. “We feel robotics are a critical part of where we’re going in the industry, but we don’t need to quickly re-design rigs to introduce robotics. We feel we can enhance the efficiency of existing rigs as they operate today,” he said.

Powering up. Meanwhile, any rig of the future must put a premium on reducing emissions, which means more efficient power delivery to the drilling systems, said Patterson-UTI Drilling Company Project Engineer Marcel Snijder.  That was the catalyst behind the development of an autonomous energy management system that manages all power production on the rig. The EcoCell technology, he explained, uses lithium batteries and  automation to keep rig generators running at their most efficient load range.

Early in the development program, Snijder said a review of 24-hr power consumption characteristics showed a typical super-spec AC land rig consuming as much power as 2,000 to 3,000 homes. “However, compared to other applications of a similar scale, it (power consumption) was much more transient. Power consumption might be close to three megawatts while drilling and would be 10%  of that during connections. There was huge variations in load,” he said.

The fluctuating power load, in turn, increases both emissions and fuel consumption, Snijder said. “The efficiency in emissions is greatly improved when operating at higher, rather than lower loads,” he said. “This program was initiated  to keep engines running at higher loads where they’re more efficient. We can automatically manage the number of gensets to keep the load higher. When rig demand changes, the power load stays constant.”

About the Authors
Jim Redden
Contributing Editor
Jim Redden is a Houston-based consultant and a journalism graduate of Marshall University, has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and corporate communicator, primarily on the upstream oil and gas industry.
Related Articles
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.