The drive for drilling automation within the oil and gas industry has become stronger in recent years. Industry research has moved from the laboratory and test rig to the drilling floor as drilling component vendors as well as oil and gas companies have launched standardized development platforms for third-party solution and service providers to plug into.

Land and offshore drilling automation

Conventional oil and gas technology adoption models predicted that the initial drivers for drilling automation would come from the more expensive offshore operations and migrate to the onshore operations when the technologies were proven and established.

However, this has been observed to not be the case for drilling automation since land drilling operations for shale hydrocarbons and coalbed methane have used drilling automation technologies to address several key operations issues. These include standardization of key drilling processes and operations, addressing HSE issues involved in drilling, and supporting the new generation of land-based drilling personnel who have less drilling experience.

The DrillScene Advanced Monitoring software provides separate views for the driller, toolpusher, mud engineer, mud logger, drilling engineer, and drilling supervisor and superintendent. This is the screen for the driller. (Images courtesy of Sekal Aberdeen Ltd.)

Drilling automation initiatives

There are two distinct groups focused upon drilling automation within oil and gas: the SPE Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) and the IADC Advanced Rig Technology (ART) Committee. DSATS focuses on facilitating the development and implementation of systems automation specifically, including the linkage of downhole tools with surface sensors and controlled equipment, while ART focuses on advancing rig technology. In 2010, the two groups began working together on the topic of developing drilling automation systems within oil and gas.

The DSATS and ART groups regularly organize major industry events such as symposiums, workshops, and debates to advance oil industry knowledge in the drilling automation field. Automation case studies from both inside and outside the oil industry have been presented at meetings, and the case for drilling automation in both land and offshore operations has been robustly debated and discussed by meeting attendees.

Data automation protocols

In 2011, the IADC established the Drilling Control Systems (DCS) Subcommittee to establish protocols that enable surface drilling control systems to communicate with downhole drilling tools to automate the drilling process. Downhole tool information is made available from a variety of proprietary acquisition systems through protocols such as WITS, WITSML, and real-time digital log information standards.

Rig surface systems use a variety of communication protocols more appropriate for high-speed control. For drilling automation, the OPC UA protocol has been proposed as a common communication mechanism to link the drilling control systems and sensors on the rig with automation systems that will also employ downhole data for intelligent decision-making or support. Working groups are focusing on improving communications and developing common protocols.

Each view is tailored to the needs of the rig hands. This is the view for the mud engineer.

A DSATS working group is currently forming to recommend “interoperability” within the control space. This can be seen as a dictionary that allows different applications to talk to each other in real time, which DSATS sees as key to rapid adoption of automation within the drilling environment.

Membership of both groups is open to industry professionals who wish to connect with experts in drilling system automation. The next major event will be a symposium on “Learning from Heavy Industry Front Runners” in Amsterdam at the RAI Congress Center on March 4, 2013.

Drilling automation at IRIS

Since 2003, the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) has devoted R&D to drilling automation using the Ullrigg drilling and well center along with its virtual-rig environment within its facilities in Stavanger, Norway.

The Ullrigg drilling and well center includes a full-scale, offshore-type drilling rig with access to seven distinct wellbores. It provides the oil and gas industry with a full-scale test rig facility to perform R&D and to test new workflows, technologies, and drilling solutions.

The result of this research on active control of the drilling machinery to avoid damaging the well during drilling operations is DrillTronics, which has been the subject of multiple articles and technical papers within the oil and gas commercial and technical press over the last eight years.

DrillTronics uses coupled dynamic drilling process models to help monitor downhole behavior within the wellbore in real time. Using the models’ predictive capability, key operational sequences are optimized, and process behavior is diagnosed for subsequent triggering of reactive mediating action. It also provides envelopes of protection for operating the drilling machine within the acceptable limits of the wellbore. These models are continuously calibrated and updated using real-time data from the active drilling program, ensuring that the physics-based model of the process behavior in the wellbore remains accurate. To date, there have been three distinct development phases for DrillTronics focused on developing safety mechanisms for drilling fluid circulation and drillstring dynamics as well as automation of key drilling processes.

Safeguards. The system continuously computes an envelope of protection for key operational parameters and inputs the calculated limits into the DCS such that drillers cannot exceed those limitations (unless they elect to do so);

Safety triggers. For some chosen parameters, the system computes maximum or minimum expected values. Any measurement outside the allowed window is interpreted as an incident, and automatic action is performed (e.g. stopping the upward rig block movement when the hook load is too high); and

Automatic sequences. There are predefined sequences that are performed automatically or semi-automatically by the system. These sequences require that both safeguards and safety triggers are already in place in the system.

The DrillTronics system has been applied on active offshore Norwegian drilling operations on two occasions, the last time in 2009 on Statfjord C. In addition, further system testing was performed at the IRIS Ullrigg center, providing hands-on training in the capabilities and functionality of the system for offshore drillers. The results of this training will be the subject of an SPE paper expected to be published in 2013. The capabilities of the system are further described in SPE papers 99027, 112744, 119650, 128234, 128285, and 128286, and in ADE paper AADE-07-NTCE-45.

Alongside DrillTronics, IRIS developed the DrillScene Advanced Monitoring software, which models the physical state of the full wellbore in real time using the same coupled physics-based algorithm set as DrillTronics. DrillScene actively monitors frictions, cuttings returns, and actual drilling fluid volumes within the wellbore and provides real-time notification of deviations from the modeled behavior.

DrillScene uses WITS or WITSML formats for real-time data feeds as the drilling data input with which to provide feedback on the well behavior in real time.

The current functionality and drilling issue detection capabilities of DrillScene are further described in SPE papers 119435, 150422, and 150942.

Next steps for research

The next phase of R&D for the DrillTronics system by the team at IRIS will focus on the real-time performance within the Machine Control Logic Unit of the DCS along with adaptation for wired pipe solutions. This upgraded version will be implemented and demonstrated in the virtual rig environment and the Ullrigg test facilities at IRIS.

Automation is progressing within the oil and gas drilling industry. The robust efforts of the SPE and IADC specialist groups have ensured a common focus of R&D and the regular exchange of ideas from both inside and outside our industry.


Sekal was established in 2011 to commercialize the DrillScene and DrillTronics systems as developed at IRIS in Norway. DrillScene and DrillTronics are now commercially available from Sekal and are being adopted by a number of global oil and gas companies.