Jennifer Pallanich, senior technology editor, Hart Energy: One of the most dangerous places in the oil and gas industry is in the drilling cab. So when David Reid became CTO of NOV, his first objective was to remove the drilling cabin from the drilling floor. He's here today to tell us all about that process. 

David Reid, chief technology officer, NOV: We’ve been doing a lot of things to bring in machines and try and get people away from danger. But the one thing we had not done was having people sitting there and watching. We started our robotics journey, and once you see actual industrial robots working, it’s very different to everything we’ve done before. We’ve built our own robots, we’ve designed our own systems. We have mining robots out there, that are usually down in mines. They’re used to high cycle work, don’t take a lot of maintenance, but they do the exact same thing over and over. It’s very interesting to watch because they took away all the work around the rotary table. So you start to see them changing out tools so that they can do different things. But two things happen when you watch them.

The first thing is, it’s really boring, which is interesting because they do exactly the same thing. They’re very precise and repetitive. And so that’s an emotion where you’re like, well, this is weird. I don’t know if I want to keep watching this other than it’s amazing. But pretty soon you’re like, I’m done. But the second thing that happens is there’s an emotion where you feel like, I feel better about this. I don't know why. So when you own or run a rig or you know the people, you’re responsible for that rig, you just have a sense of danger and big heavy things. There’s big steel above them. There’s things flying around and you just sense, ah, I’m going to have to keep my eyes on everything. Everyone needs to keep their eyes on everything, but when the robots are working, that feeling changes. You don’t feel that intensity. And so it immediately got me thinking, why are we here? Should we even be watching these machines doing the same thing, over and over? Obviously there are times you need to do different things. There’s things you need to watch, usually, but once that’s really clear, we’re talking about the red zone is clear, why are you sitting there? It didn’t make sense.

As soon as I became responsible for the rig the first day as CTO, I was like, we have to take the cabin off. And the guys who were working around the robots were like, yeah, exactly. The crew weren’t so sure, but we managed to do that. We managed to take the structure off. A lot of people are asking, well, can I run it from far away? Well, possibly. But that wasn’t the intent. The first intent was just prove that we can do this.

Because people, for years, I sat in conferences and they’d say, the future is a man and a dog, and the dog is there. The man’s there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to make sure the man doesn’t touch anything. So he’d just bite his hand if he tries to touch something, which is, I would love that idea. But everybody said, while you go on an airplane, there’s still someone flying the plane. So that’s the right thing. And for years, that was everyone’s responses. We just have to have someone there. So we didn’t have them leave the site, we just had them move away from the dangerous place where if there’s a blowout, you need to be able to get away.

JP: So how far away have we moved the driller’s cab?

DR: It’s not far. I literally said, just drop it down here, get me a screen, get me good video cameras, and we’ll be good. So we extended the cables pretty much. We’re not running through the cloud or any of that, which is, that’s probably the next phase. But the first thing is if we do this, what happens in operations? Because usually if you’re there, you’ll go manual to solve a problem. If you have to climb up some stairs, less likely you’re going to run up the stairs and back down. So it helps us a bit to just go, okay, let’s do this and see operationally what we learn, what gaps are there, what more things do the robots have to do? And so we’re in that process right now. So actually yesterday we did our first actual well that we’re planning to drill. So we’re in that process right now.

JP: Okay. So you would consider this basically a proof of concept?

DR: It is. I mean, the robots we’ve been doing for two and a half years out there, so they’re all good with the robots. They’re working fine and we’re deploying those all over. But the taking the cabin off and when we did it, we’ve been running operations for a while, but not drilling. So we’ve been running the robotics and testing systems for most of this year (2023). So yeah, that process of does everything work now, it’s really let's go to a well and find out what gaps have we not thought of.

JP: So what are some of the chores or tasks that the robots carry out?

DR: So right now they do everything that a human would do. So they’ve got enough strength, probably more than a human, so they’re handling the pipe, they’re moving the pipe in and out, which is pretty normal, but they’ll go grab a doping system and a centralizing system, and they’ll do that together. So a stabbing guide and a stab and dope and clean, they can clean as well. And then they have a mud bucket system, so they’ll change out their device and go over and get the mud bucket. So if we’re tripping out that we don’t cause a mess. So that, that’s been a lot of the work that we’ve been doing so far. There’s some development on handling of BHAs that we’re in the middle of right now on the rig. We’re just bringing up BHAs and doing them off the rig. So decided let’s not do that. And so that was just a simple step. So a lot of the offshore applications we’re looking at BHA makeup, completion tools, everything else, doing that with a different robot, but we’re trying to get the cost down so that we can manage most tasks and get most of this so that you don’t have to be there.

JP: Okay. So can you outline for me the next steps of this personless drilling rig, floor?

DR: Well, first was observing the guys. How do you feel? Which was interesting. So first steps were just getting the people comfortable and everyone who’s walked into that cabin, first of all, it’s odd to walk into a cabin that is not up on the floor, but the visuals are hundreds of percent better. It’s really funny. Early on our first test, I saw my boss and he was like, I hear the cameras aren’t great. I was like, well, let’s be clear. It’s better than any view you’ve ever had of a drilling rig. But yes, there’s some placement of camera issues that we’re working on, but I wouldn’t call it a big deal because we’re so much better. So people are really shocked to see large-screen HD (high definition) views that they never had of the rig. So it is better than when you’re on the rig. But the guys had a, ‘I’m missing the vibration, I’m missing the feel, the haptic connection.’

That was one of the first issues. But within three days they said, ‘actually, it’s better because I’m more focused. I didn’t realize I was being distracted by all of that. And this actually keeps me on task.’ The only other thing is when there are people up there is learning how to communicate when we’re using people, just setting up maintenance and everything else, having an ability to communicate between where they used to visually have eye contact. So that’s been an interesting development. So here we are and we’re going to see, we’re going to start the drilling process. And as we go through it, we’ve done studies to make sure that we have everything covered. But my bet is there’ll be a moment where, oh, I got to do this, and what is that? So trying to really thrash it out in real operations is where we’re at right now.

And I think that’ll pick up. We’re seeing a pickup in offshore and in land where people are starting to say, ‘Okay, this is the right answer.’ A couple of reasons. One, it’s efficient, but also it’s hard to get people to do those jobs or there’s new people coming in, there’s high risk with those jobs. So we’re seeing a lot of uptake in that area, but we’ve been automating so much. It seems like this is the progression, this is the way we have to go. And if you could have a rig with no one on it, would you? Yes. If you could not sit on top of a nuclear reactor, would you say, I don’t want to be here. Yeah, you’d probably say, ‘We’re very safe, but I’d rather be far away.’ And when you look at the way the design of safe systems, people are moved away from potential risk, and we haven’t been able to perceive that until now.

And here we are. So we’re basically connected by a cable. Next stage has to be, can we run from in the building, which we have a setup already. We have a simulator set up, and we’re going to tie that in and say, okay, can we drill from here? So we’re looking for partners who want to start doing that development. The large screens, I think it was Halliburton, we’re visiting the link because the large screens have room for all their screens on the screen. We don’t have to bring a box anymore. We don’t have to try and have multiple screens and we can start doing things with data and how data shows up and when it shows up on the large system. So it changes things. Halliburton wanted to know when can I do this from the shore? When can I be doing this work and have this kind of view in my office? Very easy to do. So there’s just timing of response. That’s the only thing that really we have to play around with. Okay, what does that look like? And can you run things locally? So same up on the rig. We have local controls so that you can run things locally if you need to. So a few of those things we’re working it out. I mean, my first thing was just, let’s get it off and see what pain we feel. So there’s probably more to learn that we just don't know yet.

JP: Makes a lot of sense. So you have driven this whole change, this whole project to get the cabin off the rig floor. What was your first thought when you saw it actually not there and sort of functioning?

DR: It was a great feeling. It was a great feeling. It was more watching other people because up until the day it got taken down and we set up, everyone was questioning it. Well, why are we, can’t we just blindfold them? We just put something in the way so they can’t see, improve the concept. I’m like, ‘no, the physical removal’s really important.’ And in the future will we have cabins? We may still have the cabin there and be able to be somewhere else. The point was that the physical removal was really important for operational learning, was we had to be away. We had to physically do that because humans, these people like today, they’re doing a well and they have to get the job done. They’re not going to get to say, well, we didn’t have the cabin up, and so they’re going to have to get the job done.

And so doing that was really important. So what I really enjoyed was the shock that people had. One of the guys, one of the robotics guys who’s already in this space said it was like a religious experience. When you stand there and it dawns on you, this is not just possible. This is the only way we should do it. Because if you’ve had that feeling, when anyone has been on a rig during a blowout, it is the most eerie and strange feeling. I mean, everyone’s tense, everyone’s away who doesn’t have to be there. It’s just odd, it’s an odd thing. It’s a risky time and you can feel that we’re really focused, but being able to know if everything goes wrong, I’m not in the most dangerous area. That’s a really good thing. And I think it will change for all of us. People have thought it’s not possible. And as we get to the end of this, that’s going to be good for people to be in a safer place.

JP: So clearing the red zone, finishing the proof of concepts, applying whatever lessons are learned, and then how do we get this safety to all the other rigs? What does it take in terms of commercialization, in terms of costing, in terms of having other people have that religious experience, seeing the rig floor free of humans?

DR: Well, many are coming to see it. So it is like a religious thing. They’re coming to see the thing happen, and I think they change because it’s really not a lot of barriers to doing this. There are some, but really not a lot. It’s really operationally making sure you’re there, but you can do this without being completely finished in the processes. You can have remote capability. You can be going somewhere else to watch operations. And so it’s quite easy to soft build up towards it. So I think we’ll go there faster than you would imagine, because particularly with robots, there’s a lot of new things happen when you have robots, things you have to sense, things you have to do differently. But really operationally, watching remote is the best answer. So I think it’s coming fast.

JP: Okay. So thank you so much for joining us with David Reid of NOV and me, Jennifer Pallanich, in this Hart Energy Live Exclusive.