Improving efficiency and accuracy in the drilling process are top goals for drillers, manufacturers and E&Ps.

Ever-advancing automation systems from SLB and Helmerich & Payne (H&P) are pushing toward a singular goal: consistency—regardless of the equipment, the well and the worker.

Neuro is logical

Among the top goals of SLB’s autonomous downhole control system is to reduce downlink delays that can occur when the downhole structure’s trajectory system encounters certain conditions. Downlinking new surface data can create delays of about 20 minutes per episode. SLB’s new process incorporates more data and sensors in the downhole tool to eliminate costly delays.

But that’s just one slice of a much larger pie. The autonomous system is part of SLB’s Neuro autonomous solutions, released in 2022. The system aims to automate all types of well activity. Using cloud-based software connected with intelligent systems, Neuro enables a continuous surface/downhole feedback loop. The plan is for it to set the stage for reducing human intervention and footprints across the spectrum.

Drilling Automation Systems Provide Consistency Across Wells, Fields, Personnel
SLB’s Neuro autonomous drilling solutions’ goal is to automate all types of well activity, including drilling, under one system. This allows consistency across wells, fields and formations.  (Source: SLB)

Ziad Akkaoui, SLB’s digital champion for drilling execution, said, “Neuro will expand to other domains, like wireline, slickline or any field services application where intelligence or industry 4.0 building blocks are used,” spanning processes from drilling to completions.

Akkaoui said Neuro is about “having a holistic automation solution that connects the technologies needed to deliver something like directional drilling.”

Drilling a well involves a complex web of systems and data, which must be integrated to quickly and consistently make the best decisions.

Neuro connects firmware, software, hardware and operational systems, he said, to bring value to clients. Previously, some software might be connected directly to one tool. Neuro is tool-agnostic within the SLB family of equipment.

The ability of the system to connect intelligence between surface and downhole is another important feature, Akkaoui said. It balances “what decisions are made on the surface and what decisions we can empower the tool to do on its own,” he said. “We’re investing heavily into embedding intelligence into the steerable systems to make the decisions downhole,” which is especially necessary in drilling curves or complex trajectories.

Autonomously drilling curves with downhole technology is a major step forward, he said. It reduces downhole tortuosity, helps the driller stay in the formation’s sweet spot and reduces drilling disruptions formerly required for downlinking data.

Beyond those vital nuts-and-bolts benefits, Akkaoui also takes into account performance consistency. Getting record speed on one well is great, but most SLB customers have more than one rig, he said.

“This is where automation is really key, because it brings consistency to operations and it allows you to consistently perform across the board for multiple reasons.” 

Drilling Automation Systems Provide Consistency Across Wells, Fields, Personnel
SLB PowerDrive Orbit: Embedding increasing amounts of intelligence into steerable systems like the PowerDrive Orbit bit speeds ROP by letting downhole systems make more decisions without human intervention. (Source: SLB)

The first is that with a system-based approach, “a system doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t forget, it’s intelligent and it’s always operating at the optimal level.”

Second, it is scalable to as many rigs as necessary, putting them all at that optimal level all the time, he said.

Controlling bad vibrations

“Helmerich & Payne’s existing automation systems work to control two of the three sources of drilling vibrations,” said Sonny Auld, the company’s product manager. “But because any of the three can contribute to activating one of the others, the goal was to automate the controlling of the third cause.”

Causes include axial, torsional and lateral vibrations.

Axial, or bit bounce vibrations, can be controlled by H&P’s Autodriller Pro control system. 

Torsional, or stick-slip vibrations, can be minimized by FlexTorque technology, a longtime company staple.

Lateral vibrations, also known as bit whirl, can happen when disengaging the bit from the bottom of the wellbore. This occurs, Auld explained, due to drillstring steel twisting under the torque supplied by the drill motor, absorbing torque until it transfers pressure to the bit to break the rock. The longer the drillstring, the greater the torque can build, Auld said.

Drilling Automation Systems Provide Consistency Across Wells, Fields, Personnel
H&P’s Automation Sequencer connects all aspects of the drilling process to control the sources of unwanted vibrations. (Source: H&P)

The challenge: how to safely release torque at each stand, meaning the time to stop and add another section of pipe to the drillstring before continuing. The question is, Auld said, “How do you engage and disengage the bit with the formation?”

Done improperly, the disengagement can damage and shorten the life of the bottom hole assembly, or worse, create safety issues for personnel working on the rig.

“When you come off bottom, you don’t want to have a lot of trapped torque released uncontrollably around people,” he said. 

Using Autodriller Pro or FlexTorque manages vibrations with consistency and safety—key requirements for an automation system, Auld said.

In 2023, H&P introduced Automation Sequencer to manage the process of stopping and starting at the end of every stand to now be “consistent because it’s programmed,” Auld said. “If it’s done manually, with one person at a screen, with all the variables involved, it’s difficult for that person to duplicate it at every stand. With a system like Automation Sequencer, we’ve added repeatability across rigs, shifts and whole customers. This limits distractions, fatigue and whatever else might impact the driller’s ability to handle the process.”

Drilling Automation Systems Provide Consistency Across Wells, Fields, Personnel
There are three common sources of drilling vibrations, any of which can contribute to the other two. (Source: H&P)

Everyone is interested in being faster and better, Auld said. 

“In the manual process there was the expectation of speed, with the aspiration of consistency. With automation, we have consistency and we can achieve speed now because of that more reliable consistency. Also, we can start optimizing with the operator to make the process even better,” he said.