No longer constrained to drillpipe-handling, automation is poised to pervade every facet of well construction and production.

The future of the E&P industry may benefit from a wave of fresh thinking regarding the role of automation. Why? The answer is better control of oilfield operations.

Individuals with vision have already determined that many oilfield tasks can be done repeatedly and reliably by automated systems. This does not mean drilling rigs are going to resemble automobile assembly lines staffed with robots that perform all well construction tasks. However, success with automated pipe-handling tools has spurred engineers to examine every aspect of well construction to see where automation makes sense. And the result is surprising.

Industry Expert Dick Ghiselin, P.E.

Where automation works

Many oilfield well construction operations are repetitive. Since the vast majority of well construction tasks are well understood, a worker who is relieved of personally supervising every single task can address extremely complex operations by using sensors to measure all key parameters of the task, only acting when alerted to an exception. Taking this idea one step forward, it is easy to imagine how judicious measurement of dynamic parameters can lead to the ability to predict problems before they occur simply by monitoring trends and noting deviations from the acceptable performance envelope.

This was the subject of the Drilling Systems Automation Technology (DSAT) workshop conducted at the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition held recently in Denver, Colo.

Representatives of operating companies, as well as service and supply companies, presented tasks being automated today along with their ideas of what might be automated in the future. An analogy from the aviation industry illustrated how much initial pilot training is performed using sophisticated simulators for each type of aircraft in the fleet and able to create a realistic simulation of any type of in-flight emergency.

A Weatherford engineer kicked off the discussion with a plan to add quality and repeatability to reentry jobs. Using tools and personnel available today, simulators have been deployed worldwide to train field crews. Since many dynamic parameters occurring during reentry are presented simultaneously, field crews can be overwhelmed with information. When the majority of tasks are automated, however, the eyes of the crew can be focused continuously on the remaining critical items, ensuring those things are addressed correctly.

A representative from Baker Hughes explained how, through automation, production packers can be safely and correctly deployed in the most high-profile wells offshore Sakhalin Island, Siberia. Technology that uses an air hammer is used to communicate with downhole tools by knocking in code on the tubulars at the surface. This technique is particularly effective when operating in long lateral sections where other means of communicating with the completion string are impaired.

A presenter from Halliburton revealed several examples where automation has been successful in improving efficiency and quality of downhole operations. Starting with real-time operations centers (RTOC), the company can perform increasingly complex tasks with fewer people. Through concentration of expertise, the RTOCs allow the company to concentrate the most experienced technical minds to each challenge, while simultaneously providing a rich, experiential, risk-free training environment in which to develop new talent. Halliburton is considering bringing automation to MPD, running and testing completions, well cementing operations, and stimulation treatments.

The speakers agreed that downhole tool modeling and automating must be done under downhole conditions to be successful. And all of the participants agreed that unless great care is taken, measurements can give false positive results, completely negating any advantage gained from automation.

Schlumberger’s presentation focused on examples of how the company studies a job by breaking down each task and considering it for potential automation. The first example was automated handling of perforating guns at the surface. It is standard practice today to clear the drill floor’s ‘red zone’ when arming a gun, but new techniques create a safer environment through automation of arming, deploying, and disarming guns without human intervention.

Schlumberger also is studying intelligent well services with the goal of automating them, particularly while running in the completion string simultaneously with control lines and electrical conductors. Sand control media deployment also is under consideration for some automation. Control of fluid, unexpected fluid loss or influx, and equivalent circulating density are being studied as well.

In addition, a new initiative that enables logging-while-producing is under way. Different from the familiar production logging tool strings, this procedure uses robust accurate downhole temperature and pressure gauges. According to Schlumberger, the possibilities are endless for achieving improved efficiency through automating key tasks without jeopardizing operational integrity or safety. The company has identified many automation ‘apps’ that can be introduced just like the popular smart-phone apps.

Introducing a ‘back to the basics’ approach, Shell says it can eliminate such rig icons as the Marsh Funnel and the mud balance by introducing continuous measurements of mud properties that can instantly indicate a downhole influx or fluid loss. In addition, eliminating drill bit vibration could significantly improve drilling efficiency and bit longevity.

Intelligence improves efficiency

Wrapping up the conference, Chairman John DeWardt talked about a recent project where the act of driving a downhole milling operation using a variable speed drive enabled the operator to smooth out the operation, making a 50% improvement in milling efficiency. DeWardt said the industry needs to determine what can be done to deploy effective automation tools and techniques and when they can be reasonably implemented. Some of the critical items to be decided include:

  • The human factor – how much can we automate without incurring risk? 
  • What constitutes ‘acceptable risk’ in our industry? 
  • What will be the perceived value of automation by each stakeholder? 
  • What is the implication of variable drivers? 
  • Should we strive for a perfect solution for one well or a less than perfect solution that fits all wells?

This conjures up a vision of the automated rig of the future that is allegedly populated by two creatures – a human and a dog. The dog’s role was to keep the human from touching anything, and the human’s role was to feed the dog. Humorous perhaps, but the consensus of the participants in the 2011 DSAT was clear – automation is coming, and those adopting it will benefit from greatly improved operating efficiency and safety, which will be achieved by focusing workers’ attention on the exceptions while the robots take care of the routine tasks.

Although drilling operations are unlikely ever to resemble assembly line operations, many drilling activities will be automated in the near future.

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