Drilling automation comes to life

Gregory Hale

October 1, 2015

Gregory Hale looks at how automation capabilities are removing guess work and allowing for real-time decision-making.

The architecture for an automated rig allows for portable, machine independent, OPC UA Clients to function as data-to-information converters and automation algorithms.

A down market can mean companies opt to batten down the hatches and patiently ride out the rough patches, choosing to get ready to hit the ground running when business eventually picks up; or they can innovate and find ways to take advantage of current opportunities through technology advances.

That is where offshore drilling automation can come into play.

Shell knows letting a machine handle the mechanical and hydraulic drudgery of drilling means people can stay away from hazardous areas. Instead, engineers can focus on perfecting and calibrating algorithms allowing for a consistently high level of performance, while not relying on a dwindling supply of Baby Boomer drilling experts getting ready to leave the industry. That is what drilling automation is all about.

That is why it created the SCADAdrill control system, which provides autonomous drilling and trajectory control. The system is not a science fiction experiment. It uses common tools sourced from low-cost suppliers. It can connect to the existing instruments and controls of a drilling rig. It can operate the rig machinery and monitor all aspects of the drilling process. Although it is capable of working without human supervision, SCADAdrill allows well engineers to monitor the rig remotely. If necessary, control can end up taken over from the machine.

Shell is one industry giant working on and moving toward drilling automation. Joining Shell is supermajor ExxonMobil, Norway’s Statoil, Brazil’s Petrobras, and service companies Schlumberger, NOV and Baker Hughes. Each wants to find ways to program all or parts of the drilling process.

Real-time optimization

While automated drilling is currently seeing more action onshore than offshore, there are aspects being utilized that could lead to an automated drilling operation on the seas. The goal is to link surface and downhole data in an automated way to allow for real-time drilling optimization. This real-time automation allows visibility into the current drilling environment that could be several miles from the rig floor. This way it can be possible to know with more accuracy what is going on in the process.

“We are providing real-time high-speed telemetry and downhole sensors for enhanced rig control and real-time drilling decisions to be made,” said Stephen Berkman, director of Global Business Development at NOV Dynamic Drilling Solutions. “The objective isn’t solely focused on rate of penetration (RoP), it is a combination RoP improvement and borehole stability. Operators are making more informed decisions based on the high-speed data, allowing monitoring of downhole conditions. Risk mitigation is the emphasis offshore to change the way we drill.”

Drilling efficiency is one area that needs improvement, Halvor Kjørholt, manager for drilling and well research for Statoil said at the SPE Intelligent Energy International, held in Utrecht, Netherlands, this past April.

He talked about applying modern control technology used in other industries to run drilling process sequences in an automated mode, which would enable the industry to move away from the relatively manual process drilling is today.

“It’s about moving drilling more in the direction of process control,” he said.

Communication protocol

Communicating the information from the well to topside deterministically remains a vital concern so rigs can better monitor what is going on in all aspects of the drilling operation.

One communication protocol is emerging as the standard and that is OPC UA, which sees wide usage in industrial automation. The Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) committee of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) supports the use of OPC UA for device communications and control.

“OPC UA focuses on time critical deterministic information and reliability,” said Thomas Burke, executive director of the OPC Foundation. “We started talking about DSATS in 2012 with the OPC Foundation, but things have really started to take off as of late.”

OPC UA enables different devices to talk to each other. Each individual rig device communicates to a rig PLC. An automation PLC communicates with the rig PLC to control the devices through exposed set points. As the type, or supplier, of rig PLCs varies from rig to rig, portable automation control programs are not possible. Data access from the rig PLC is generally a passive, one-way data stream.

The use of OPC UA provides:

Through technology advances and use of accepted protocols, automated drilling in the offshore environment will allow for a cleaner, safer and more efficient operation.

“If you apply this correctly, you reduce your costs,” Berkman said. “If the client is looking at applying technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency and lower break even costs or how many events I can avoid in non-productive time by utilizing high-speed downhole data either to drive the rig or drive the decisions, then it works.”


Gregory Hale
is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (ISSSource.com) and is the contributing automation editor at Offshore Engineer.