Automation: What the drilling industry can learn from aviation

Posted on 09 March 2012

By Katie Mazerov, contributing editor

As drilling automation becomes increasingly common, it is placing greater demands on education and training of rig workers to ensure they are proficient in complex systems. “As we’ve gone up the automation ladder, things have not become easier – they have become more complicated,” Dr John Thorogood with Drilling Global Consultant said at the 2012 IADC/SPE Drilling Conference on 7 March in San Diego, Calif. His presentation focused on lessons from aviation automation that can be applied to the drilling industry.


As the drilling industry has increasingly utilized automation, the separation between the person in charge and the primary control systems has increased, said Dr John Thorogood with Drilling Global Consultant. “We’ve put computers between them so that when the systems misbehave, that (individual) requires a far greater understanding of system behavior,” he said.

One of the key advantages of automation is the removal of human variability, Dr Thorogood said, adding that this can lead to a massive increase in operational efficiency. “When in the control mode, automation does reduce the driller’s workload so he can develop a much better sense of situation awareness. It is more important for the person in charge to be managing the operation than buried in a particular phase of the operation.

“But as we’ve automated, we have increased the separation between the (person in charge) and primary control systems,” he continued. “We’ve put computers between them so that when the systems misbehave, that (individual) requires a far greater understanding of system behavior. Ultimately, there is a risk that when looking at complex systems through very small displays, it becomes quite difficult to determine what the system is doing.”

Dr Thorogood presented cases from three aviation incidents that provide lessons for drilling. The first involved a plane crash in Colombia where the crew made a late decision to change runways and misprogrammed a radio navigation beacon frequency into the navigation system, causing the plane to deviate rapidly from its trajectory. “The lesson for drilling is to develop a system for reacting to unexpected events and make sense out of a confusing situation,” he said.

The second example involved the successful landing of the US Airways Airbus in the Hudson River after the engines failed due to interference from birds. “The automation envelope protection system stopped the plane from going completely out of control, enabling the crew to return the plane to a controlled flight pattern and achieve a smooth landing,” Dr Thorogood said. The captain’s decision to switch on the emergency generator also played a key role in the success of the operation. “The lesson here is the importance of experience, discipline and adherence to standard procedures,” he said. “It is also important to note that for as many spectacular failures we’ve had, there are many unrecognized successes.”

In the third case, a crew with 20,000 hours of flying time could not gain control of a highly automated Air France Airbus when it stalled at 38,000 ft and descended into the Atlantic Ocean. “As the plane descended, the automated computerized display system gave out multiple ambiguous signals,” Dr Thorogood noted. “This case illustrates the importance of knowing how systems respond to extremely rare events where the complexity of the interfaces makes it difficult to make sense of what is happening.”

Maintaining command

He cited the work of a NASA scientist who defined six key principles for aviation, which can be applied to drilling:

  • The pilot and air traffic controller must be actively involved in the process they are controlling;
  • Both must be adequately informed about what the system is doing;
  • Operators must be able to monitor and question the functioning of the automation assisting them;
  • Behavior of the systems must be predictable;
  • Automated systems must monitor human operators by providing alerts if anomalous conditions are detected; and
  • Every intelligent system element must understand the intent of other system elements.

In implementing automation, the rig operator should understand what decision the function is automating, who is responsible for the decision, the safety-critical implications, whether delegation to a machine is appropriate, whether implementation will keep authority and responsibility tightly connected, whether the automation will be more efficient and reduce workload, and if the decision-making actions of the system will be clear to the rig operator.

Going forward, the drilling industry will see continued automation, particularly in the area of choke controls and intelligent alarm systems for decision support, Dr Thorogood said. “It is possible the automated chokes for managed pressure drilling may find their way into primary well control.”

To keep pace with advances, rigs must be properly commissioned before they are deployed and crews must be trained on simulators to ensure they develop situation awareness and the ability to resolve problems as they arise. “Automation isn’t just about computers, controls and software,” he said. “It involves people and organizations.”

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