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Drillbotics competition adds human factors requirements

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In the 2021/2022 Drillbotics competition, the contestants will have to integrate human factors (HF) engineering considerations into their automated drilling rigs.

Drillbotics is an international competition for universities to design and build a small drilling rig that uses sensors and control algorithms to autonomously drill an unknown rock sample. Alternately, they may create a full-scale virtual rig. In either category, teams will be given downhole targets on the day of the final test and must automatically plan the trajectory and drill a directional well as efficiently as possible.

This year, a collaboration between the SPE Human Factors and the Drilling Systems Automation Technical Sections resulted in new requirements being added to the competition guidelines.

“Asking students to not only read about human factors but actually to integrate HF requirements into their designs is an important milestone for the drilling industry,” said Marcin Nazaruk, Chair of the SPE HF Technical Section. “When things go wrong on a rig, too often we see examples of the operator getting blamed for what HF practitioners may consider poor system design that leads to the equipment operator not having the needed information to diagnose a problem and intervene effectively.”

How people interact with automated systems has been high on the agenda for many years across high-hazard industries, including aviation, nuclear and healthcare. It is also at the forefront of research when designing self-driving cars and has been growing in recognition in the oil and gas industry.

The concept that “machines” are better at some tasks than humans, and vice versa, has been prevalent for decades. For example, humans surpass machines in respect to their ability to improvise and use flexible procedures. On the other hand, machines surpass humans in respect to their ability to handle highly complex operations, i.e., do many different things at once.

“It may appear that there are very few downsides to providing very high levels of automation with little to no required user input,” said Peter Gibson, Human Factors Specialist of Human System Interactions, who is supporting the 2021/2022 Drillbotics competition. “However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there are overlooked downsides to providing high levels of automation, usually termed the ‘Ironies of Automation’ which must be suitably managed.”

Two examples of such ironies are:

  1. Any autonomous system is ultimately conceived and designed by humans. Attempts to design out the human merely shift the responsibility further up the chain. Operators involuntarily inherit the biases and performance-shaping factors that influenced the design team.
  2. The autonomous system cannot account for unforeseeable scenarios. This is one of the predominant reasons humans remain part of complex systems, to address the “unknown unknowns.” However, expecting human operators to flip between a passive monitoring role and an active “doing” role is difficult to achieve. As a result, they may be out of the loop, and their situation awareness may be compromised.

As part of the 2021/2022 Drillbotics guidelines, students will be asked to consider what information operators need and to determine how to best present it so that the operator can remain “in the loop” at all times and effectively intervene if things do not go to plan.

The competition participants will also learn about:

  • Levels of automation;
  • Basics of HF engineering and design;
  • Alarm management and alarm philosophy;
  • User interface design;
  • Case studies when automated systems contributed to problems; and
  • HF in remote operations and many others.

“We are introducing HF this year so that teams will get the basics of this science that is relatively new to our industry,” said Fred Florence, President of Rig Operations and Vice Chair of the competition’s leadership team.

To learn more about human factors in drilling automation, see Section 11 of the Drilling Systems Automation Roadmap Report on Human-Systems Integration or the 2020 SINTEF report on Human-centred design in drilling and wells.

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