Batteries not included

Elaine Maslin

November 1, 2016

The drill floor robot is no longer a vision, it’s a reality and it’s going to start operations offshore Norway next year. Elaine Maslin reports.

The world’s first drill floor robot installed at the Ullrigg Drilling and Well Centre. Photo from RDS.

"The robotic drill floor is not a vision. It’s here, it’s now and it’s working.” This is a bold statement, but one that, after some US$45 million investment over 11 years, Kenneth Mikalsen, chief technology officer, Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS), is now able to make.

The firm has made what it calls the first drill floor robot – an automated handling tool able to perform multiple functions – which is set to be deployed on a rig offshore Norway in early 2017.

It’s not any old rig either. It’s Odfjell’s Deepsea Atlantic, which is currently working for Statoil on the huge Johan Sverdrup field – Norway’s largest ongoing industrial project. Odfjell also has a 38% stake in RDS, alongside other stakeholders including Statoil, Westcon and venture capital firms.

The firm has also assembled a full robotic drilling system, using a suite of four drilling robots, including a roughneck and pipe handler. Earlier this year, the full system was demonstrated working together at the firm’s Sandnes, Norway, base. Next year, a full set is due to be deployed at the Ullrig Drilling and Well Centre, operated by Norwegian research organization Iris, in Stavanger (Ullrig has had one drill floor robot since late last year).

RDS also has an order for a pipe handler from Nabors, giving the fledging commercial company a $4.5 million backlog.

Lars Raunholt, RDS’ founder (when the company was called Seabed Rig) and now vice president of business development, will be glad the previously autonomous seafloor drilling unit-focused firm took a change of direction.

“Ten years ago, 20-25% of oil yet to be found was in the Arctic,” he told SPE Intelligent Energy in Aberdeen early September. “Shell was one of the companies active in the Arctic and was looking for new technology. What a difference 10 years makes. The ice is melting, Arctic exploration has gone with the oil price and we don’t do business with Russia [an Arctic player] because of the sanctions. We decided to focus on automation and robotization on conventional rigs.”

Thanks to that shift, RDS now has technology it hopes will advance drill floor automation. “We think the technology we have brought forward is an enabler for automation and digitalization of drilling operations,” he says. “[Using these robots] you can operate twice as fast as you can today, depending on what you are doing.”

Raunholt says 40 operational days a year could be saved using these robots, through faster, more precise and consistent handling, especially around tripping, but also bottomhole assembly, and casing running, as well as increasing safety by removing staff from the drill floor. “There is less maintenance, and in principle no maintenance for at least 10 years, as well as easy installation,” he adds.

RDS has designed and built four different drilling robots in total, including the drill floor robot, a robotic pipe handler, an electric roughneck, and a multi-size elevator. They are all able to work on their own or together.

The full robotic drill floor system during workshop testing. Photo from RDS.

Mikalsen says that the units have been designed to be robust, using standard known components (from the likes of Siemens, Nabtesco [gears], Igus [cables], and others). On each, the entire control system is within the robot, and they’re all-electric, so a control cabin or hydraulic power unit isn’t required. “You just hook up with power and communication,” Mikalsen says, speaking at ONS in Stavanger late August. “When the first drill floor robot was sold to Ullrig, it was shipped already tested and loaded with the programs it needed. It just had to have its position calibrated and then the programs run.”

There’re no sensors or cables on the outside and they are slightly over pressured on the inside to enable EX-approval (based on the EU ATEX equipment in hazardous environment safety directives) and make them easy to flush down.

Key innovations in these tools, Raunholt says, includes making them all-electric and running them on a dynamic robotic control system. “The usual control systems used in manufacturing are used to do repetitive tasks,” he says. “The drill floor robots will be tasked with much more varied tasks.” RDS worked with Boston, Massachusetts-based robotic software firm Energid on the controls systems for this reason.

Seven axis solution

The drill floor robot is also unique – automated pipe handlers and roughnecks are types of equipment that already exist, the drill floor robot is new, and can be used to do manual operations that are done today, Raunholt says.

The seven-axis drill floor robot (which Raunholt says has the world’s strongest electric manipulator handling arm) selects tools, such as grippers, spinners, clamping tools and other handling tools, automatically, with an inductive interface supplying power and communications to make the tools smart, i.e. for measurement or filming for inspection. It has 1500kg capacity, at 3m outreach. It runs on an average 13kW power, using seven electric motors with total 100kW installed power.

The pipe handler has 9° of freedom, with a 3500kg capacity lower boom able to move between horizontal and vertical. It can also change its own handling tools, such as a gripper or spinner-gripper, which can spin pipe directly into or out of the stick up, with the roughneck then only having to do the make and break operation.

The roughneck has 270kNm capacity, which means manual tongues aren’t needed, and a triple torque grip wrench with 120° total rotation per grip. The elevator has 350-tonne capacity, but could be bigger, and can perform remote controlled change of inserts and tilt 90°.

“All the robotics are force sensitive,” Mikalsen says, saving exerting undue pressure on the pipe threads and reducing torque required for handling. Each machine knows where it is in relation to other machines it would be working with, so they won’t collide. The pipe handling robot can pick up pipe from horizontal, and you can drill while picking up pipe and building stands, he says. The drill floor robot and pipe handler can also spin, so the roughneck doesn’t have to, “adding up to an effective system,” Mikalsen says. “It means actions are repeatable but also with speed.”

Because it’s an electric system, energy is more easily saved through the control system and a “digital twin” can be created for monitoring and testing. The human machine interface has been reduced to a standard computer with two screens and a graphics card, he says.

Using these robots will save at least one month during a one-year operations window, Mikalsen says by “saving time during handling with drill floor pipe handling, casing handling, etc.”

Estimates from the company suggested that savings for a typical sixth generation rig could be 30-40 days per year, which could repay the cost of the $10-15 million equipment in a year, according to a research note from Nordea, earlier this year. “We think this is a company that will continue to gain attention as we progress and expect an increasing number of contractors to consider their technology,” Nordea said.

Raunholt agrees, saying that while today’s market is bad, a market for robotics still remains. Statoil, Shell and ConocoPhillips have been supporting RDS for a number of years, and now Eni and Total are also involved. The firm has also had grants from the Norwegian government. “There is also no other company within the electric drilling robot niche,” he adds.

The first offshore deployment on the Deepsea Atlantic will occur in Q2 2017. The drill floor robot will join existing machinery on the rig and will be positioned between the main and auxiliary drill centers, serving each.

In December, a pipe handler is due to be delivered to Nabors Industries, who will use it onshore, outside Europe. This unit has horizontal to vertical handling capability so it can pick up pipe from a horizontal position and serve it to the drill string, reducing manual tasks and increasing operational time.

Future developments could see further integration with drilling control systems.