The rig of the future: making every well your best well

Catherine MacGregor

President, Drilling Group, Schlumberger

Well construction is held back by outdated habits and processes. However, there usually is a good reason why workflows have not changed all that much—the most important one being safety.

But those daily pains, delays and frustrations that well planners and rig crews just accept as facts of life, they create an efficiency ceiling at business level that we cannot break through unless something changes at a more fundamental level. This will forever limit the number of wells we can drill, the changes of plan we can cope with to maximize results.

The rig of the future is our ambitious vision of what lies beyond that efficiency ceiling. Its first manifestation is a program that focuses on the hardware side of rig technology. But that is just the beginning. What we want to do is connect physical and digital worlds, both on the rig and below the surface.

In the case of most drilling workflows, that digital world is in large parts yet to be created. So let us create it with the future in mind and start collecting the pieces of the puzzle that will make up tomorrow’s world of well construction. Let me show you what happens if we break through to the other side of that efficiency ceiling.

Redefining workflows—because we finally can

The reason why it is so hard to change our current workflows in well construction is the inherent intricacy and uncertainty of the human-machine-geology system that we are dealing with. The paperwork, the procedures, the protocols, they put a simple structure over the complex, allowing us to navigate it safely and on shared paths, with a shared destination.

And while staying on these paths keeps us safe and ensures we can always move forward, it also prevents us from taking a smarter path when we find one, from rerouting around obstacles, from changing direction to a new, better destination.

To stay with the metaphor for a bit longer, the directions we use to coordinate our journeys are a cluster of documents, some on paper, updated individually, manually and in sequence. They rely on the person holding them to read and follow them, and that person often cannot move until someone else has done their bit.

All of this we are now able to change. In simple terms, we will be giving you all Google Maps and a good mobile signal—or rather the drilling workflow equivalent thereof.

The idea: to put a single source of data on the rig, and a single, digital plan—a roadmap that lives and on which all drivers involved are visible. Speed restrictions, road signs, traffic laws and individual driver’s licenses and permits are also part of the system, so compliance happens automatically, without several pounds of hard copy Standard Operating Procedures and regulations. What is more, the system will remember successful short cuts and best routes, learning from you and other drivers, enabling it to constantly improve the journey.

All the pieces we need to make this a reality are currently falling into place, creating the necessary condition for a radically new way of constructing wells.

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The rig of the future: when brawn meets brain

This is about more than just making our existing workflows and documents digital (although that will help). We want to purpose-build something new: drilling workflows as intelligent, real-time routes to a well, that are faster, better and more agile, that drive the process. It is about shifting your focus from the driving to the engineering.

These new workflows will enable collaboration and feedback loops, sharing of data and sharing across disciplines. But they will also result in a digital plan that will eventually be “read” and executed by a mechanized rig. And that is the point at which digital and physical meet.

So the rig of the future is a bridge we are building from both shores at once. One side is the hardware: a mechanized rig with advanced, complex machine controls. The other side is science-infused software that allows us to plan and operate this mechanized rig digitally. What we are joining up here is not just the physical and the digital, it is subsurface knowledge and surface operations.

Once both the hardware and the processes are digitally enabled, we can look at adding brain to the brawn. We can process more data better to inform decisions and we can automate routine processes, freeing up rig crews and the wider team to focus on the science of drilling and less on the admin of it. It takes us towards the final frontier—an inspiring thought experiment:

Autonomous drilling: a rig that gets by on its own?

The ultimate vision for the rig of the future is something we have been thinking about and working on for a long time—some 15 years, ever since a Schlumberger team was involved in projects around autonomous drilling in extreme environments. The question: imagine we need to instruct and guide an unmanned rig remotely—how can we make sure it is able to react fast and by itself when something unexpected happens?

The scenario we were looking at was as far removed from contemporary drilling challenges as it gets: it was about Mars. NASA was looking for ways of equipping a rover to drill for water on the red planet. It was a mindboggling engineering task with countless new and completely unfamiliar challenges, but it got us thinking about the type of artificial intelligence we would need to handle something as fast and fiendish as drilling.

The usual rule for a rover in space exploration is: when in doubt, just stop and wait for instructions from Houston. Nothing bad will happen, if you just stop. This rule does not work for drilling. We all know that if something unexpected happens during drilling, downing tools can make things a lot worse.

But to enable the rover-turned-driller to react, it needs to understand what can happen and what to make of it. It needs to be loaded up with the domain knowledge and science that gives it real interpretative skills. That is something entirely different from the machine learning and analytics we have been hearing about in the last couple of years.

Rather than letting autonomous rigs roam freely and do their thing, this type of artificial intelligence will provide a helping hand and a safety net for multi-skilled rig crews. It will allow us to get a number of people off the rig to assist remotely instead. It will learn along with us and hold on to those learnings.

One small step

Back in the here and now, we are making exciting progress and the pieces are falling into place right now. There will be seemingly small steps we will make together in the coming months, but they will change drilling as we know it and enable us to break through that ceiling and make every well better than the last.

Rig of the future: an integrated well construction platform explained by Justin Rounce, senior vice president, Marketing and Technology, Schlumberger