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Human-free drilling? For some, it’s almost here. For others, it still sci-fi.

Posted on 21 June 2011

Panelists brought very different perspectives to the topic of human-free drilling during the IADC World Drilling 2011 Conference & Exhibition in Copenhagen last week. The session was moderated by Pierre Gie (left), DGEP TDO FP Strategie-Contracteurs-Qualite for TOTAL, and Sjoerd Brouwer (second from left), well engineering manager Europe for Shell.

Panelists brought very different perspectives to the topic of human-free drilling during the IADC World Drilling 2011 Conference & Exhibition in Copenhagen last week. The session was moderated by Pierre Gie (left), DGEP TDO FP Strategie-Contracteurs-Qualite for TOTAL, and Sjoerd Brouwer (second from left), well engineering manager Europe for Shell.

Is human-free drilling possible? Will it ever be possible? How close are we? Depending on which panelist you listened to during the “Human-Free Drilling” session at the IADC World Drilling 2011 Conference & Exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week, you’d get very different answers – ranging from “That is very far away from now” to “It’s coming soon.”

Four perspectives were offered on the topic: Jim Rogers, automation advisor – worldwide drilling for Apache Corp; Frederik Smidth, chief technical officer for Maersk Drilling; Svein Ove Aanesland, product line director – control systems for National Oilwell Varco; and Nejm Saadallah, a researcher with International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS).

Jim Rogers, Automation Advisor-Worldwide Drilling, Apache Corporation

Jim Rogers, automation advisor-worldwide drilling for Apache, said that with the help of automation technologies, “the industry can get rid of the monkeyboard, the rig floor and the doghouse.

First up was Mr Rogers, who advocated that automation will be necessary if industry wants to make step changes in performance, not just incremental changes. He offered examples of how automation technologies have been used successfully in industries such as automotive, defense, chemical and power to improve safety and efficiency, and he believes that the same technologies can be used to engineer hazards out of the way we operate in drilling as well.

How? For starters, the industry can get rid of the monkeyboard, the rig floor and the doghouse. There’s really nothing stopping us, he said.

“Why does a driller need to be sitting on the rig floor? Why can’t we take that doghouse, move it 50 meters away and set it on the ground? … Why does he have to be up there on the rig floor? And the answer is, because he is the sensor,” Mr Rogers said.

The driller has to be on the rig floor because he’s feeling the rig vibrations, listening to the sounds, smelling the smoke, etc. “If we instrument the newbuild rigs to where we can see what’s going on with the rig, then we can relocate the work crew and get them away from the hazards,” he said.

The barriers to the industry actually achieving this today does not lie in a lack of technology or a lack of standards or a lack of incentive, he asserts. “Drilling is a special industry. There’s a lot of experience and attitude and culture that goes with it. There’s a lot of resistance to change. There’s a lot of resistance in the way contracts are structured, in the way companies operate and in business models.”

But that business model is now undergoing a rapid change, and he believes “only the companies that could successfully adopt and align their businesses to that change would prosper. … My view is, this shift is coming, it’s coming soon, and it’s coming to a rig near you,” Mr Rogers said.

Frederik Smidth, Chief Technical Officer, Maersk Drilling

Frederik Smidth, chief technical officer for Maersk Drilling, doesn’t think the industry has gotten much closer to true drilling automation over the past 25 years.

The next panelist, Maersk’s Mr Smidth, offered a different view of automation. Although he has seen tremendous advances in technologies for remote operations over the past 25 years, he doesn’t think we have gotten much closer to true automation, nor even been that successful at reducing the number of people required on offshore rigs, much less “human-free drilling.”

Drawing comparisons between the drilling industry and the shipping industry, Mr Smidth noted that in 1983, the largest container ships in the world could carry 6,500 containers with a crew of 23 people. “At that time we were building the Maersk Giant, and we still operate that rig with a crew of 23 people,” he said. By 2004, container ships could transfer more than 15,000 containers with a crew of 20, while the Maersk Innovator was being built to be operated with a crew of 44.

Recently, new container ships were ordered that can carry 18,000 containers with just 18 people onboard. If the drilling industry had an equivalent gain in efficiency, Mr Smidth pointed out, we should be able to operate our newbuild rigs with just 16 people. “We’re way far away from that, unfortunately,” he said.

There certainly have been advances, for example, in remote pipe handling. In 2000, when the Maersk Innovator was ordered, a simple tripping operation took seven machines and 30 interactions from the driller and assistant driller. By the time the Maersk Developer was ordered five years later, the sequence took 10 machines but only 14 interactions, and only about 10 of those required confirmation from the driller/assistant driller.

“In conclusion I’ll say that human-free drilling is not realistic if taken word by word, but we would like to drive that development where we see less manning in drilling where we’re actually able to reduce the amount of people necessary to drill a well offshore,” Mr Smidth said.

Svein Ove Aanesland, Product Line Director-Control Systems, National Oilwell Varco

Svein Ove Aanesland, product line director-control systems for National Oilwell Varco, noted that technical and economic barriers remain to achieving human-free drilling.

Mr Aanesland from NOV asserted the viewpoint that, unlike the automotive industry, drilling for oil is not 100% predictive. “It’s more an industry that we have to have human interactions for analysis. … I still think we need a driller,” he said.

He also believes that technical barriers remain to achieving human-free drilling. “We have to let go of the old ways. Machines that we are using are designed initially for manual work and then adapted to the automation. I think we need to think a little bit different,” he said, adding that they should be designed for automation and adapted to manual use.

Economic barriers also persist. The cost of failure makes us conservative, he said, and industry needs to do better at making equipment more fit for purpose.

Nejm Saadallah, Research, IRIS

Nejm Saadallah, researcher with IRIS, said safety and functional scalability will be the two basic elements that a drilling control system must guarantee.

The final panelist, Mr Saadallah, described one of the main ideas behind human-free drilling as replacing drillers with computers. Systems are already being developed now to do that, including one such project under way at IRIS.

Under such drilling control systems, there are two basic elements that must be guaranteed: safety and functional scalability. “Safety in the sense that the system as it’s designed does what it’s meant to do and never does what it’s not meant to do,” he said. The functional scalability aspect provides the ability to include “experts” easily without compromising safety.

The notion of replacing drillers with computers was again brought up during the Q&A and met with some skepticism. Can computers really replace humans in the art of drilling? it was asked.

Mr Rogers offered this defense: “You can’t convince me that a driller, most of whom don’t have higher levels of education, can know better than an industry as a whole how to respond to something. I think we have enough experience, probably sitting in this room, that we could define some intelligent algorithms that would do better than your average driller would do, that would respond faster and more intelligently.”

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