SPE Drilling systems automation technical section workshop

‘Shaping the future of drilling’ meet hears from NOV’s Florence on making machines smarter. Emerson’s Berra on misplaced fear of automation. LeBlanc on NI’s FPGA-based CompactRIO controller. InTechSys’ Tovar on working with DARPA. Debate—FlexRig, is drilling behind the curve?

National Oilwell Varco ‘s Fred Florence kicked off the Drilling systems automation technical section (Dsats) workshop held during the SPE ATCE in San Antonio last month. Dsats is now established as a not for profit with its own officers. Dsats holds regular meetings and is cooperating on R&D with Universities in the US and EU. A data interoperability workgroup has been formed and is engaged with the Standards leadership council. For those who are wary of drilling automation, Florence stated, ‘Dsats is less about using an offshore pipe handling system onshore—it is more about how to make the machines we use today smarter.’

John Berra, past chairman of Emerson Process Management, observed that despite many examples of successful drilling automation, there is no real momentum. He puts this down in part to the day rate model, but also to fear of change and the fact that folks ‘don’t want to contribute to their own demise!’ Such fears are misplaced. Berra put Emerson’s success down to having spotted the use of electronics in the 1970s, a disruptive technology at the time. In the following decade, Emerson was an early adopter of microprocessors in control systems—again, in the face of great resistance to change. At the time some competitors believed they could corner the market with proprietary systems and protocols. Emerson sought to ‘differentiate in an open environment’ by adopting the PC-based technology and supporting open communication standards—which ‘make the pie bigger for everyone.’ Turning to the drilling arena—efforts are underway on standardization but again, there is fear of change. Berra believes that the process control standards should be leveraged in drilling—‘don’t build from the ground up.’ Somebody needs to take a lead—‘you need a coalition/consortium’ to navigate the ‘political’ process that will take time. ‘Geekery’ should be avoided by setting clear goals and developing use cases. In the Q&A, Berra cited the FieldBus, OPC and Hart Foundations as examples of standards successes.

Chris LeBlanc’s company, National Instruments supplied hardware and software bundles for drilling control systems. Many control systems operate in silos and don’t scale well. LeBlanc advocates building controls systems with ‘common off-the-shelf’ (Cots) technology—even if his idea of Cots is rather esoteric. The dash for unconventional resources with complex frac and completions has led to the adoption of low cost small footprint tools and hardened embedded control systems. Making these involves a graphical design tool for control systems, a math capability and optional GUIs. Enter NI’s CompactRio), a reconfigurable embedded control and acquisition system based on reconfigurable field-programmable gate array (Fpga) and programmable with NI’s LabView. This offers a graphical programming paradigm that can be used by a domain specialist. One NI poster child is Optimation’s OptiDrill—an intelligent top drive control system. Another is Lime Instruments frac control platform which offers redundant peer to peer control across pumps, blenders, chemical trucks and the data van.

Ed Tovar (InTechSys) informed the drilling community that the US Darpa defense research organization has a $3 billion ‘discretionary’ budget. So ‘if you’ve got a good idea...’ Darpa’s mission is to prevent technology surprises. Tovar sees potential for collaboration between Dsats and Darpa but ‘wait until the new year after the election.’

In the debate, one drilling contractor opined that although the industry is perceived as lethargic, if new technologies are not in the contract, they will not be deployed. Operators should say what they want and specify required equipment.

One of the few operators present (maybe 6 out of 150) responded that operators are not attuned to process control. It is used on small subsystems, but can be a struggle to understand and apply at scale. What should operators be putting into contracts?

One researcher observed that ‘requirements’ and ‘research’ may not always be easy to match-up. As Henry Ford observed if he had asked what his users wanted, they would have likely replied ‘a faster horse.’ Darpa’s environment encourages ‘co-evolution of requirements and research.

LeBlanc argued that rapid prototyping could facilitate the integration of novel control systems in requirements documentation. The operator supported the development of some clear specifications for such contract documentation. Operators deploy process control gas plants but not, so far, in drilling.

Integrating technology development in the boom and bust environment can be hard. How is technology to be advanced in the face of the next bust? The answer may be through new builds where the relationship between operator and contractor is more malleable. Are the new ‘6th generation’ fully automated? Do they need a man suspended 100 ft in the air? These considerations needs to be taken into account during the design phase when they are less costly to implement.

A FlexRig representative vaunted the merits of its technology. Here touch screen control has replaced the brake handle. Simple automation has proved very effective. But the technology has not seen much take-up. Despite considerable investment and a technical success, ‘Wall Street made my life hell!’

But the Dsats movement could benefit from more clarity, ‘it’s not just about rate of penetration gains, but also about harder-to-define concepts like well bore quality.’ One shale gas operator seemed quite happy with the current state of the art, reporting on sub-seven day ‘factory drilling’ wells and straighter, better quality holes. Industry may not be behind the curve at all, ‘technology is moving ahead at about the right speed.’ The use of semi-automated systems such as the managed pressure drilling (MPD) kit was suggested as a significant safety enhancement—a ‘best in class early detection system’ that is used today on some land wells.

Those interested in drilling automation should check out the Summer 2012 issue of Schlumberger Oilfield Review which has an introduction by Fred Florence and a good summary of the state of play from Walt Aldred et al. The next Dsats symposium will be held in Amsterdam on the 4th March 2013. Visit the Dsats home page.

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