The most important job on a drilling rig is making it back home. The work cannot be done without the workers, which is why safety is so paramount in the oft-dangerous energy industry.

Companies are protecting their workers by advancing technology and implementing more automation into their processes. Nabors Industries recently unveiled a new solution that touts greater safety and efficiency.

Their solution: the Canrig Red Zone Robotics Rig Floor, or RZR — pronounced “razor.” The technology retrofits a “robotics module” on existing rigs to become hands free with a rig floor and derrick clear of people, said Travis Purvis, Nabors’ senior vice president of global operations.

“This is automation that exists on our rigs now whereby we can get people off the rig floor and derrick and out of harm's way, while drilling and still getting an efficient drilling outcome,” Purvis said.

Avoiding the ‘red zone’

The idea for RZR came from Nabors’ belief that they “had to develop technology that would get people completely out of these red zones,” which are high-risk areas on the drill floor, he said.

Such red-zone areas include anywhere near the drill bit or pipe, as well as the derrickman position that is often 90 feet high, said Brian Brooks, Nabors senior marketing director.

Nabors new RZR Rig Floor Automation Module, already tested on Exxon Mobil wells in the Permian Basin, looks to keep workers safe with a fully autonomous rig floor
(Source: Nabors Industries)

“This is very much a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ type of technology. We can move people out of those red zones and give them new value-added tasks on the rig without compromising performance.” —  Travis Purvis, Nabors

“What's incredible about RZR is we're delivering high-spec rig performance with nobody in those areas,” Brooks said.

The RZR drew inspiration from the Nabors newbuild PACE-R801 robotic drilling rig, which is Nabors’ first fully-automated land rig. Like the R801, the RZR combines drilling automation software with advanced robotics technology to fully automate drilling, but at a “fraction of the cost of a newbuild,” Purvis said.

The RZR Rig Floor can retrofit onto any electrical alternating current rig, onshore or offshore, and create an autonomous environment in which drillers are able to monitor operations from the driller’s cabin. All Nabors RZR features are enabled through its rig operating system, SmartROS, which can be installed on existing rigs and used to control its own or third-party equipment.

Permian Basin tryout

The RZR automates repeatable tasks and can make drilling connections in and out of hole. Its iRacker feature is a fully autonomous, triple-racking tubular-handling system that enables hands-free pipe handling and on- and offline stand building. The hands-free pipe handling keeps floor hands and derrick hands out of red zones.

“This is very much a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ type of technology,” Purvis said. “We can move people out of those red zones and give them other tasks on the rig and, at the same time, have a safe outcome and highly predictable outcome in terms of operational performance.”

Nabors new RZR Rig Floor Automation Module looks to keep workers safe with a fully autonomous rig floor
(Source: Nabors Industries)

But, for Nabors to enjoy this cake in the first place, they needed a partner that would allow them the ability and flexibility to equip one of their rigs with the new RZR technology. In Exxon Mobil, they found a partner with a shared emphasis on safety.

“What Exxon's provided is a like-mindedness in terms of a firm belief that we've got to get people out of red zones,” Purvis said.

He noted the supermajor, as a first adopter, provided a posture and a technology alignment with Nabors that allowed the company to prove the concept. 

By late 2022, Nabors had equipped one existing rig – X29 – with RZR technology and drilled four wells in the Permian Basin for Exxon Mobil. With Nabors working on the fifth well, RZR has proved to be both “reliable and efficient,” Purvis said. Although scaling and expanding the technology is the logical next step, Purvis also has other ambitions.

“We're convinced that this technology is the future, and we will see this deployment, over time, on the broader Nabors fleet,” he said. “Our hope and expectation is that we see this technology deployed on third-party rigs as well. This is not technology that we're holding in a closed hand that's ours and ours alone. We're very interested in holding this with an open hand and allowing access to this and availability of this to a broader industry.”