When automation, not if

Elaine Maslin

March 1, 2015

Automation on the drillfloor has been slow to take off – but it is coming as advances in enabling technologies are made. Elaine Maslin looks at work ongoing in the field.

Automation on the drillfloor has been slow to take off – but it’s coming and there will be no going back, accord­ing to many.

According to the Gartner “Hype Cycle” curve, drilling automation has been in a trough of disillusionment, says Geoff Downton, a founder member of the SPE’s drilling systems automation technical sections (DSATS), from Schlumberger. But, it is now on its way out of the trough, and, there’s no going back. “It’s not a case of ‘if automation,’” he told the SPE Drilling Automation seminar held in Aberdeen late 2014.

But, drilling automation doesn’t necessarily mean automat­ing the full system, and it will require advances in enabling technologies, such as downhole communication links and open architecture, says John Macpherson, Chairman of DSATS and a senior technical advisor for Baker Hughes. “Across industry there is much better understanding of automation and that we are not going to automate everything in one go,” he says.

DSATS was set up in 2008 to accelerate the development and implementation of systems automation in the well drilling industry. Its definition of drilling systems automation includes, importantly, everything that’s in real time, from the drill bit to shore, including monitoring, advising, controlling and autono­mous systems.

Currently, autonomous systems have been developed for down hole – because they need to be. The surface is automated to a cer­tain extent, with the driller remaining in the loop. Onshore teams are then able to monitor, but not control operations.

The current level of automation in drilling. Images from DSATS. Both images first appeared in SPE paper 166263. 

Subsurface communication complexities

A key challenge for automation is understanding the complexi­ties of the subsurface, in real-time, which, combined with low data uplink rates, means grafting on an automated downhole mechanical system into the drilling process which is not as simple as it might sound.

“There is a lot of devil in the detail and when you start putting automated systems together you find things that are not as you would like in existing systems,” says Macpherson. “Downhole, we can make measurements in the string, of the borehole wall, even ahead and around the drill bit. You get some idea of what’s happening and there’s even actuation in terms of the steering systems we have. But really that’s the chal­lenge, trying to control this process.”

“We have a downhole tool, which has its own control sys­tems. It measures some tool response, it’s influenced by what it’s drilling through and it’s influenced by drilling parameters from the surface. The tool can steer, it has measurements, but it may not be necessarily where you want it to be, and the uplink is slow, and the downlink really slow. Trying to [maintain] con­trol with these delays, coupled with human intervention, makes control from a process perspective very interesting. From an automated control perspective, this is a particularly challenging problem that has to be addressed.”

One of the bottlenecks is the communication between down­hole and topside, with uplinks, in the best cases, at about 40 bits per second at the moment. But, such bottlenecks are being addressed. Wired pipe could offer an answer to the downhole data issues, under the right economics, providing an alternative to mud pulse telemetry, Macpherson says.

The DSATS set up


DSATS is working to address some of the challenges in drilling automation – and allow smaller companies, or even companies outside the oil industry, to provide solutions – by opening up the communications systems and infrastructure “so everyone can play.”

It has promoted a communications protocol (OPC-UA), which is being adopted by the industry. The protocol describes how data moves between different objects, allowing a third party to safely plug in and provide applications to optimize the system.

DSATS is now working on a rig information model to allow a third party to know what it is looking at when it plugs into a rig system. This would include environmental information and hardware limits, in order for the third party to control the rig equipment.

Once refined, the rig information model will be handed as a recommendation to a third party, such as Energistics, who will build it into recommended guidelines for drilling systems automation, and perhaps eventually into a standard. Energistics is responsible for WITSML, a web-based version of the Wellsite Information Transfer Specification (WITS) a common communi­cation protocol.

A further piece of work is a security and threats model for connectivity, being created jointly between the SPE and International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC).

A further challenge is controls modeling, Macpherson says. While the capability exists to model complex systems, from the bit up to the surface, modeling from a controls perspective is a challenge due to the many elements that influence system behavior, which may or may not be known, Macpherson says.

First, there is a requirement for high quality, reliable real-time data, then an understanding of measurement delays ,which wired drill-pipe would help with, and then there is a need for real-time modeling itself. “Our perspective on modeling has to change to a control point of view, a real-time point of view. So real-time control – what measurements you make, how you close the loop, how you model the system in real time - this is probably a little beyond us at the moment, but this area is beginning to evolve and we certainly have the computer power to do it.”

DSA road map

To illustrate the possible development pathway of drilling systems, a Drilling Systems Automation (DSA) Road Map initiative has been put together under the affiliation of SPE, IADC and AUVSI.

The task has been split into eight groups: Systems architecture; Communications; Instrumentation and measurement; Drilling machines; Control systems; Simulation and modeling systems; Human factors; and Certification and Industry Standards.

Each of these groups is taking the individual subject areas and mapping how the technology is likely to develop and then bring it all together to see, as a whole, how they perceive it going. This information would then be shared so that anyone with business in this area can appreciate what direction the technology is going.

The idea is that the DSA road map can also identify technol­ogy gaps, which companies might decide to pursue.

Inevitable automation

Automation on the drillfloor has been slow to take off – but it is coming as advances in enabling technologies, such as downhole communication links, as well as creating open architecture, are made.

For Odd Erik Gundersen, associate professor, Department of Computer and Information Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, increasing automation in the drill­ing process is “inevitable,” and has the potential to achieve consistent higher quality and safety. “To me it’s a no-brainer,” he told the SPE seminar.

But, he says automation will not solve everything, particularly when it comes to situational awareness or handling unexpected events. He suggests a hybrid solution where computers can make the main bulk of decisions that are non-exceptional and do not require human creativity as part of the problem solving pro­cess, while the human is still involved in the complex decisions.

“The business model is evolving and is certainly disruptive and transformative. You know automation is going to leave this industry changed, but what the change is and how it takes place is a story that is evolving,” Macpherson says.