Oilfield Automation: Where Do We Go From Here?


I was able to attend a Plenary Panel at the 2018 AADE National Fluids Technical Conference and Exhibition on the topic of Automation and Digital Work Transformations for Drilling and Completions – ‘How Far and How Much in the Low-for-Longer Market Setting?’ this week.
The format was 4 panelists from various segments of the industry, each giving about a 10-minute presentation, then the audience was broken out into groups to discuss the content of the presentations. The panelists moved around the room and listened in to each groups discussion, offering commentary.
Brad Cage, a completions engineer with Devon Energy, reviewed Devon’s path with working towards the digital transformation of their completions process. He shared steps and outcomes for that journey, resulting in a more efficient and lower cost completion.
Alan Rodgerson, a Fluids Advisor with BP, detailed BP’s progress with 2020 plan for automation. The main takeaway was that it wasn’t as clear-cut as it seemed at the outset. There is a difference between Automation and Mechanization.
Amir Bar, with Halliburton, highlighted the need for attention to the “People” side of automation and digital transformation.
Eric Griffith, with PDS Petrotechnical, discussed the need for data format standards adoption among operators and service companies.
Once the presentations were complete, the audience attendees were allowed to break into groups to discuss their thoughts on the panel’s presentations.
Those varied from a group of students recognizing the need for automation, but also concerned about job displacement to the need for accurate sensors to capture accurate data, to concerns on how the implementation of automation will impact certain jobs where there is already a gap between experienced practitioners (read: older hands) who resist technology and novice practitioners who innately understand technology but don’t yet have the experience to equal the other group.
Overall, the whole session was thought-provoking and a great session to attend.
I had many thoughts on the various subjects and concerns brought up. I will probably cover them at some point in other articles, but I wanted to cover this because it is one that I have not seen covered in-depth.
How do we transition to full automation for the jobs involved in drilling?
I have heard it said that we already are starting to transition some of the jobs with things like iron roughnecks and pipe handlers, but fully automated versions of these are not the norm. In most cases, on rigs where they are present, their actions are initiated and controlled by people. I am not sure if the cost of running a fully automated (Level 6, according to Dr.William L. Koederitz, SPE, PE) version has not dropped below the cost of utilizing people to operate them or other factors are at play. Either way, we aren’t there yet.
There are a lot of people that will say that you can never automate this job or that job, but ultimately, it may not be a matter of automating the job. It may be a case of finding a way to get the same results without having to do the job at all. Automating a manual process can be done, but does it make sense for it to be done? You can read about an attempt to do just that in this previous post.
I think, eventually, we will have at least three separate stages for moving to general use full automation in the drilling industry:
Piecemeal Task Automation
Specific systems will be automated to reduce risk, improve repeatability, remove the “human error” factor. We are at the beginning stages of this phase. We have auto-drillers, companies working on autonomous drilling advisory systems for geosteering, prototype systems for controlling pipe movement when tripping, based on formation limitations (There may be implementations beyond the prototype stage at this point), and there are probably more than a couple fully-automated pipe-handling equipment providers out there.
More General Automation
Most rig systems will be fully automated with oversight by a smaller skilled crew. The domain experts that used to reside on the rig, (relative to this phase), are monitoring operations remotely and tweaking recommendations to optimize performance, assisted by an AI advisor. Service companies will provide technicians who will do rig-up, rig down, and maintenance on equipment.
Full Automation
Rig is fully automated and houses no personnel. Potentially operates sub-sea, thousands of feet underwater, or even on another planet/moon/asteroid. Systems are fully autonomous and self-correcting. May not even be in the business of exploring for hydrocarbons. (We might all have backyard nuclear reactors powering everything we need.)
And, as always, let me know what you think in the comments. Ask questions, tell your story.
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What are your thoughts?

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