Over the past seven years, the challenges associated with unconventional shale gas development have led operators, contractors, academics and technology companies in the oil and gas sector to place more and more emphasis on exploring the potential merits of drilling automation. Their discoveries, some believe, could revolutionise the discipline in only a decade.

Horizontal shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing require a huge number of wells (thousands or even tens of thousands per prospect), which, in turn, call for a huge number of rigs and resources to man those rigs. So, not only are operators facing challenges related to relatively low natural gas prices and complicated rig logistics, they’re also having problems in the human resources department.

"[The current situation] has led operators to struggle with meeting their goals on staffing of operations, and making sure staff have the right competencies and experience, meeting operational safety goals (reduction of recordable incidents and lost time incidents), and reducing costs and inefficiencies to make shale field development economic," says Eric van Oort, Lancaster professor in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas’s Cockrell School of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering.

"Automation is seen as a possible way to address these main challenges by taking people out of harm’s way (for example, no people on the drill floor, with heavy machinery doing all the work), reducing inefficiency (through highly repeatable performance for routine tasks brought about by mechanisation), and creating the ability to do true ‘factory-style’ well manufacturing and thereby being able to do more with less people (effective leveraging of experienced staff)."

"It is assumed that various forms of automation (or intelligent solutions) can make the drilling process less dependent on individuals’ interpretation, skill and attention," agrees Halvor Kjørholt, manager of drilling and well technology at Statoil. "We also see a potential for improved repeatability and the ability to operate closer to technical limits, and with a significantly faster detection and reaction than humans in the case of deviation from predicted trends. All in all, automation is seen as having potential to improve the robustness, speed and safety of drilling operations, all at the same time."

Challenges can be addressed

Yet, despite the obvious advantages of introducing much more automation into drilling, particularly in the field of unconventional shale gas development, many in the industry still remain sceptical.

"The oil and gas business, for all its progressive adoption of state-of-the-art technologies, particularly offshore, is still a rather conservative business," van Oort believes.

Other reasons for reluctance include concerns over jobs disappearing; changing business models, particularly in the service sector; and safety in an environment where humans and mechanised systems are interacting.

Van Oort, however, thinks that all the issues that are causing concern across the sector can be addressed.

"I personally do not think that automation will reduce the number of jobs, but that the jobs will change; for instance, less roughnecks screwing pipe together (the automated equipment will do this much more efficiently and safely) and more highly qualified maintenance technicians fixing robotic equipment," he remarks.

Furthermore, when it comes to safety, van Oort, previously a Shell executive, is keen to emphasise that automation will ultimately be of huge benefit, rather than detriment, to the industry.

"Drilling is not an inherently dangerous business as long as risks are properly understood and competently managed; mishaps and errors may happen when risks are no longer properly managed, as in the case of Macondo," he explains. "Here is where automation can make a meaningful positive impact by giving us more advanced tools and capabilities to manage complex risks; for example, by taking people out of harm’s way or maintaining sophisticated instantaneous oversight over complex operations."

When we board a plane, after all, we don’t think twice about putting our lives in the hands of what is now an almost entirely automated system.

"Why then hesitate to adopt automation in oil and gas operations?" van Oort asks, adding that, of course, the transition between a human or manual operation to a mostly automated operation will need to be carefully managed.

"It is of utmost importance to qualify and test automation technologies thoroughly before they are introduced," Kjørholt agrees. "It is also essential that the staff are confident with the technology through education and training; for instance, training in simulator and/or in a test rig."

Automation champions

Statoil and the University of Texas are by no means the only organisations committed to making drilling automation as widespread as possible across the oil and gas sector.

"Major service companies have already decided that they want to be key players in an automated future, and companies like National Oilwell Varco (NOV), Schlumberger, Baker Hughes and Halliburton, among others, have already [started] positioning themselves for gaining market share in automation and tying up IP," van Oort says. "Moreover, operators, suppliers and academics like myself are working very hard to prepare for a largely automated future."

"Drilling automation is no doubt on its way in, but challenges remain, although these have also evolved over the past two to three years."

Statoil is currently in the last phase of preparing for the start-up of DrillTronics, a real-time system for monitoring, diagnostics and control of the drilling process developed by the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) on one of its offshore installations. This will be the company’s first commercial test of the system, which actively controls the draw-work, top-drive and mud pumps to account for the dynamic behaviour of the well during drilling operations, and offers safeguards and safety triggers.

The Norwegian multinational oil and gas company has also supported autonomous drilling specialist Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS) with funding since 2006. RDS has developed a robotic drill-floor system, which will be ready for a full-scale test in 2015, with a further offshore test in 2017. The system can be implemented on existing and new drilling rigs and consists of five complementary components that constitute one autonomous robotic drill-floor system.

Also in Norway, West Drilling Products has developed the continuous motion rig, which is the world’s first continuous drilling operation and also the world’s first fully robotised rig. The rig facilitates managed pressure drilling and, according to the company, can reduce the overall drilling time by up to 50% as well as slashing safety risks.

Only a decade away

Drilling automation is no doubt on its way in, but challenges remain, although these have also evolved over the past two to three years.

"Whereas the discussion of business models was on the forefront of the Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) workshops two to three years ago, [that] discussion has faded into the background and the discussion topics these days revolve more around standardisation and technical as well as implementation challenges," van Oort remarks.

Currently, he believes there are four key challenges the industry needs to address:

  • safely managing the transition from a human-in-the-loop to a predominantly automated operation
  • standardisation of systems (software, hardware, communications protocols, and so on)
  • capital intensive decisions to either retrofit existing rigs or build entirely new, fit-for-purpose rigs with advanced automation technology
  • managing change by overcoming conservatism and scepticism within companies.

"Another implication we will see is that some roles will change among the contractors – some players will probably take over services from others and integrate in their own products," Kjørholt adds.

So how quickly can we expect automation to become a prominent feature in the oil and gas drilling industry? According to Kjørholt, progress over the next decade will be swift.

"I think that we will see a significant change by 2025, particularly within pressure and volume control, as well as automation of certain drilling sequences," he predicts. "But there will still be a lot to do after 2025."

Van Oort agrees, expecting progress to be made in the next five to ten years.

"With systems that work and yield tangible benefits, adoption can go very fast," he forecasts. "When things make sense from an HSE and/or economic perspective, the industry has the capital means to implement changes very quickly indeed, and has done so in the past with the adoption of all kinds of new technologies, starting out with the adoption of rotary drilling after the Spindletop well in 1901.

"In addition, the industry has some true champions (companies like Shell, ConocoPhillips, NOV, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes to name a few, as well as industry groups such as SPE-DSATS and our own academic contribution at UT Austin, where we are running a large drilling automation R&D effort) that are acting as ‘midwives’ in bringing well construction into the 21st century through the development and adoption of automation technologies.

"When their combined and cumulative efforts are starting to show meaningful results and benefits, which is already happening as indicated by the progressive number of technical papers published on automation technologies and their successful trials implementations, adoption will accelerate."