• Land drillers consolidating digital directional drilling
  • $400 million in acquisitions in six months
  • Standalone software is rig-independent

Super-specification pad-optimal Swiss Army-style walking rigs may generate headlines when it comes to evolution in land drilling, but directional drilling is fast becoming a more accurate indicator of how the sector is evolving as tight formation development enters full field development.

Companies like Baker Hughes, a GE company, have offered sophisticated geosteering suites combining bits, motors, downhole evaluation and software control to improve ROP for some time. But quietly, and without fanfare, the largest domestic land drilling contractors and their Canadian peers are integrating digital directional drilling capabilities into rig offerings.

The trend accelerated over the last six months when land contractors began purchasing digital directional drilling providers. Acquisitions include Helmerich & Payne IDC’s $100 million purchase of Motive Drilling Technologies Inc. in May, Patterson-UTI Energy Inc.’s $215 million cash and stock purchase of MS Energy Services and Trinidad Drilling Ltd.’s $40 million cash and stock acquisition in August of RigMinder Inc. and its electronic data recorder and bit guidance systems, which integrate the rig and directional drilling tools.

Other drillers, including Nabors Industries Ltd. and Ensign Energy Services Inc., offer directional drilling services and supporting downhole packages that include proprietary mud motors and MWD tools integrated with software to improve directional drilling performance. Nabors, for example, is commercializing a multiple package software suite that includes its recently developed ROCKit directional steering control system.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Precision Drilling aims to “de-man” the directional drilling process via a proprietary directional guidance system that coordinates workflow between the rig’s driller on location and a remote directional driller who oversees several directional drilling projects simultaneously. Precision is using algorithms to convert 14 process and 20 decision points in directional drilling into seven processes and 10 decisions, reducing support crew, time and cost. The system will be fully deployed across Precision’s fleet in 2018.

What’s going on? At the simplest level, it is an opportunity for drilling contractors to capture more revenue per rig in a flat pricing environment. Beyond that, larger drillers are bringing in-house a service that is integral to today’s best practices where precise lateral landing in extended wellbores is as important for boosting hydrocarbon recovery as greater proppant loading.

Digitally enhanced directional drilling integrates software suites, sensors and downhole tools to reduce wellbore tortuosity and generate higher ROP. Digital directional drillers point to field-tested savings in time and direct costs that are measured in tens of thousands of dollars per well.

Digitalization of directional drilling is disruptive technology. The question is whether it will supplant both personnel and the community of independent service providers.

One other factor promoting the spread of digital directional drilling is that the software is often independent of the rig, allowing smaller contractors to integrate the service into their own rig offerings via third-party access.

Like all wellsite technology, digital directional drilling may require an evolutionary step in perception at the well site that also incorporates specialized human input and flexibility as the best solution for sophisticated problem-solving in a dynamic environment.