Roughnecks of the future will be highly skilled technicians with a much greater understanding of highly complex automated systems.

Now that drilling is soon to be under way in the deepwater portion of the Gulf of Mexico, the industry is getting back to business. New regulations on drilling equipment and processes will require more maintenance and safeguarding than ever before. One trend that will continue to improve drilling operations for years to come is the ongoing effort to automate as much of the process as possible to ensure safe, timely operations are carried out successfully. 

In 2009, SPE/IADC’s annual Drilling Conference held its first collaborative technical session to discuss drilling automation, which was moderated by David Reid, National Oilwell Varco. Writing at the time, my view was mostly focused on the connection between personnel experience and automated response to trouble wells. Much of the discussion from this first session in 2009 revolved around nonproductive time induced by human error and limitations of safe operations due to human interaction with machinery. However, in a post-Macondo era, arguments for removing personnel from the rig floor in exchange for automated systems are gaining ground. 

In recent months, I’ve covered a number of innovative new systems that improve the overall drilling process by limiting downtime and increasing efficiency through highly advanced arrangements of machinery and personnel. 

Nabors Drilling USA introduced its B-Rig series earlier this year. These programmable AC electric (PACE) rigs actually “walk” through successive drillsites. Each is equipped with a Columbia Walking System, which allows the rig to travel up to 100 ft (30.5 m) without moving the backyard and with full setback. A well-to-well move can be accomplished in as little as one hour, and the rig can return to a previously drilled well with an accuracy of plus or minus one-sixteenth of an inch! 

DrillMec Drilling Technology, an Italy-based manufacturing company that has recently added bases in the US, is currently producing extremely low profile hydraulic rigs to offset some of the problems with drilling in near urban areas. The 100% hydraulic rigs operate with a sound maximum of 60 decibels at the location limit. Compared to conventional rigs where sound averages up to 120 decibels, DrillMec’s HH Series offers acceptable performance equal to traditional rigs featuring draw works while limiting the impact on the local environment. The rigs’ fully automated pipe handling system can trip in and out of hole at a consistent speed of 42 super single joints per hour. The rig’s hydraulic components did meet with some resistance for use in the field, but as hydraulic technology advances and becomes more robust, more operators are warming to this style of rig for its joystick control from a single, air-conditioned driller’s console. 

In 2009, I questioned the ability of automation to relieve the drilling platform of “the Roughneck.” However, as Tendeka’s Malcolm Pitman stated, “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.”

Rather than alleviating the need for personnel, advanced automated drilling systems will give rise to a more complex workforce in the field.