Drilling automation is proving to be a way for future operations as opposed to a passing trend. From pipe handling to the rig floor, more standard operations are being automated to improve safety and to lower non-productive time. Both on land rigs and next generation drillships, automation is incrementally improving the bottom line for many oil and gas operations.

To gain a better insight into both the current status and next wave of automation advances, E&P spoke with Malcolm Pitman, Vice President Europe, SSA and FSU for Tendeka who has worked in the oilfield industry for more than 30 years. He brings extensive knowledge to Tendeka specializing in well construction, well intervention, new technology and mature field development.

As a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), Malcolm sits on the Forum Series Eastern hemispheres Implementation committee. The SPE Forums look at hot topics in the industry as well as future industry needs for the next 15 to 20 years.

In your view, what are the most significant advances in drilling automation to appear in the last several years?
Drilling automation means different things to different people. As an example, Batch drilling in the Bakken shale formation in the US is a fine tuned process. Automated land rigs shorten the time and reduce the cost of production. Offshore, drillships, jackups and semisubmersible rigs with automated drill floors are often seen as a prerequisite nowadays.

Advances in closed loop drilling systems, such as managed pressure drilling and underbalanced drilling, now offer opportunities to reduce the skin and improve production by tackling formations that have become too difficult to drill—either through depletion or just because they are challenging in their own right.

From the full range of processes within a drilling environment, what area(s) do you see that necessitate further innovation?
Again this depends on the type of rig and the task that is required of it. For example, onshore Texas versus offshore Gulf of Mexico are two very different animals; however they have very similar requirements when it comes to taking the tasks of well construction in hand. They both need a range of integrated services to complete a well such as tripping, drilling, casing, cementing, wireline and completions. Tripping pipe is easier to automate with standards for length, weight, outside and inside diameter.

Completions, on the other hand, come in all shapes and sizes with umbilical control, fiber optics, and power lines attached. Future systems will use additional sensors so that the machines/ robots assembling and tripping them in the hole will be aware of the dimensions as they pick them up. Radio frequency identification technology as a standard inserted into all apparatus running in and out of the well, delivering detailed information on demand, is one such technology.

What players have had the largest impact on drilling automation and control? What are some of the specific contributions these companies have made to automate the drilling process?
Operators seeking consistent, predictable, and safe performance are the key to automation. They write supply chain contracts and give service companies the opportunity to be smart. The statement of requirement (SOR) is extremely important and is where the strategy for automation starts. It sets out what processes you want to integrate and what common platform is required to do it.

Several majors are taking a holistic approach by funding revolutionary rig designs coupled with long-term contracts.

For areas that have experienced less automation, what are some of the barriers that have impeded further innovation?

The drilling process has been the first to experience automation through the use of homogeneous lengths and dimensions. The ability to manage a pipe, whether to trip or drill or make up stands offline – or go a step further and have standards that allow automated systems to deliver value – can now be applied across the entire well construction process. The system should start with the operators requiring highly automated assets.

The new challenges are completions and designing for automation. Currently as an industry we design for manufacture, but we need to take that a step further.

What technologies are needed to develop a level playing field for drilling automation, lower the overall cost?
Most would like open software (building applications IPOD/IPhone style) and hardware allowing individual companies to design to a standard that allows plug and play. Economies of scale are often barriers to market entry and limit innovation to the very few.

Currently, what is the R&D outlook for drilling automation and control? Who/Where are investments being made to develop new technology or improve existing technology?
The outlook is bright as the drilling contractor, automation equipment manufacturer, and the operator build the next generation of drillships, semisubmersibles, and land rigs. These have more automation than ever before with fewer people required to operate them.

The next positive move would be to reward value, with long-term contracts structured in such a way as to move away from the day rate mentality. The idea that the more days you are on location the more you get paid is not necessarily the best way to incentivize performance. A clear value proposition needs to be developed by the operators’ contracting divisions.

How would you describe the drilling environment of the future?
Several simultaneous events are currently in process. Drilling systems are being coupled together with language that allows real-time decisions to be made in real-time operating centers. As this becomes more prevalent, the “expert” on location will become less relevant because any modern PDA can give data access.

Future development will include such items as torque and drag, slip/stick compensation, rate of penetration, swab pore pressure limits and equivalent circulating density (ECD) limits. Legislation also may be introduced on well control automation.

Many proponents of drilling automation envision fully automated drilling environments in the future. What are the benefits of this scenario? What are the challenges or problems? Will there be roughnecks in the decades to come?
With the drive toward ever greater safety and consistency of performance with fewer people on location, the roughneck is more likely to become more of a technician. Automated rigs will need well-trained automation technicians with an understanding of a far more complex system.

What will expedite the move toward greater automation?

Operators, rig and equipment manufacturers are investing serious amounts of capital in new rigs of all types. The key to success will be to integrate or to find an integrator for a smart business model.

The automation movement is growing and gathering pace, several industry-focused technical sections, such as the IADC and the SPE Drilling Systems Automated Technical Section, include strong individuals and a clear vision to deliver strong arguments for automation. An Applied Technical Workshop and a Forum series were held in 2010 by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and both were oversubscribed. That’s a good indication of the growing move towards greater automation.