An automated robotic drilling future

June 23, 2014

Drilling technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. Yet, Statoil’s drilling and well research manager says there’s room for a revolution when it comes to efficiency. Elaine Maslin reports.

“I think there’s room and need for a revolution in offshore drilling,” says Halvor Kjørholt, manager for drilling and well research, Statoil. Kjørholt, who was speaking at SPE Intelligent Energy International, held in Utrecht in April, says drilling technology, particularly around safety and ability, has improved, but efficiency hasn’t. In fact, drilling costs have increased by a factor of five since the turn of the century, he says.

“There has been sizeable technology development in drilling over the last decade,” Kjørholt says. “These developments have eased the life on the rig, improved safety, and enabled more advanced wells, but drilling efficiency has not improved much over the last 20 years.”

Improving drilling efficiency could help the industry save. Drilling, which is the most efficient measure in increasing recovery rates, accounts for more than half the development cost for offshore projects, he says.

According to Kjørholt, there is room to take 50% out of the time to drill a well— and he has some ideas how this can be achieved.

Kjørholt has six technology aspirations for the drilling industry, from robotics to real-time monitoring. They involve a combination of intelligent solutions and hardware, topside and downhole, all of which are inter-connected with potential synergies.

The six areas are: real-time well diagnostics;

drilling sequence automation; downhole pressure control; robotic drill floor solutions, casing while drilling; and real -time reservoir navigation. Not all are entirely aspirational—Statoil is already working with companies to realize robotic drill floor solutions, for example. Kjørholt outlined each area in more detail:

  • Real time well diagnostics – Kjørholt would like a software diagnosis tool to give accurate information about downhole conditions. For this, improved and extended instrumentation and data acquisition will be needed, including self-calibration capability. An ultimate version should also indicate potential improvements which could be made during drilling.

  • Drilling sequence automation –Applying modern control technology used in other industries to run drilling process sequences in an automated mode, would enable the industry to move away from the relatively manual process drilling is today, Kjørholt says. “It’s about moving drilling more in the direction of process control.”

Statoil is already working with Norway’s Sekal to achieve this. Sekal is owned by International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), Statoil Technology Invest, Sakorn Invest, Saudi Aramco, Wellwork Innovation, and Sekal employees. The company has developed DrillTronics, a real-time system to actively control the draw-work, topdrive, and mud pumps to account for the dynamic behavior of the well during drilling operations.

The system monitors, diagnoses, and controls the drilling process, with several automated functions in addition to safeguards and safety triggers. All the functions will be tuned to match, in real time, what the well at any point in time can handle from the real time calculated and calibrated values.

DrillTronics can be run in two different modes, active and passive. In passive mode DrillTronics will calculate and display all limits and the driller may use the displayed limits. These limits will not be used by the drilling control system (DCS). In active mode, all calculated limits will be sent and used by the DCS and hence automated functions, safeguards and safety triggers will all be active. All functionalities are adapted to compensate for rig heave.

A first version of a system using drilling sequence automation is being installed on the Statfjord C platform in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea and will start operating this spring, Kjørholt told SPE Intelligent Energy.

  • Down hole pressure control, or managedpressure drilling – This existsalready as a service, Kjørholt says. “In the future it could be a more integrated part of the way we are drilling,” he says.

    “I think the way forward is to integrate it into drilling control systems and this way accuracy should be improved, as well being able to detect small, in and out, fluxes from the well. An ultimate form should automated handling of losses and gains, to make sure an event doesn’t develop in to a well control situation.”

Robotics – “In the future we will see more robotics replacing the mechanical solutions we have today,” Kjørholt says.

Here, Statoil is also already working on solutions, this time with Norway’s Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS). The firm, behind the seabed rig concept—a seafloor drilling rig—recently had significant investment from Norwegian drilling firm Odfjell. The company agreed to participate in a new share issue of NOK50 million in RDS, and an additional NOK35 million in a future share issue.

RDS describe the unit as the world’s strongest fully electric robot for the oil and gas industry—“a new generation handling tools, for the pipe-deck and drill-floor on new builds and retrofits, consisting of robotic technology for fully unmanned drilling operations.”

A full-scale prototype has been in testing over the last two years, with support from Statoil, Forskningsrådets Demo 2000 program, Innovation Norway, and two other oil companies. Odfjell says a full-scale test is planned for 2015, with a final offshore test in 2017.

“With a payload capacity of 1500kg at 3m reach, the robot will be capable of handling most tasks done today by airtugger, other lifting apparatus and/or rig personnel,” RDS says.  

The ultimate solution must be unmanned and efficient drill floor with high reliability, he says. “A fully electric solution is seen as fast, accurate, and easy to maintain, as it could be built, to an extent, from standard components. RDS’ robot is to be moved to an onshore test-rig for testing later this year, Kjørholt says.

  • Making the well as you drill – “This has been a long-wanted solution, providing we have full capability to steer and log,” Kjørholt says. “I see this as a way to build robustness in to the well. The ultimate aspiration is to drill, line, and cement sections in one run.”
  • Real-time reservoir navigation – “Being able to make a 3D image ahead and around the bit is an enabler for optimal well placement and enabling better understanding of the reservoir,” Kjørholt says.

These solutions alone could improve efficiency. But, Kjørholt says, using all of them would have the biggest impact. “My view is an integrated effect will be bigger than the sum of the components,” he says. “For all these areas, developments are ongoing, but there’s still a long way to go.”

There is also “one final piece missing,” Kjørholt says—competency. “Future solutions will need new competency. It will be important to seek that also outside the traditional drilling environment,” he concludes.