Drilling: Can We Change the Equation?
Jean-Pierre Poyet examines the barriers in well construction and how they can be overcome.
Where roughnecks once labored with slips and tongs, oil rigs increasingly feature top drives with automatic pipe handling and tripping. Instead of overseeing a crowded drill floor, drillers sit warm and safe in their control room chairs, surrounded by screens and manipulating hundreds of tons of metal with their fingertips.
Safer and more efficient drilling—that’s definitely progress. But with the focus firmly on hardware, the driller’s chair also currently marks the limit of technical innovation. Beyond it still lies a mesh of human managers, manual processes, and paper-based protocols that’s more difficult to disentangle and streamline.
Of course, there are good reasons for this. Drilling is a complex business involving enormous forces and pressures. Over more than a century, industry best practice has evolved to provide safe routes around those hazards.
But today’s rigid, linear workflows are plagued by delays and sub-optimal decisions. They chain us down, putting safer, better-quality drilling programs out of reach.
To deliver real improvement, we have to put our trust in digital systems. Initially, this means working from a single digital well plan covering every aspect of surface and downhole design and operation. But to really break free of today’s constraints, the plan has to be embedded within an intelligent digital system that suggests the next best action at each decision point.
This digital system can optimize every step of the way, changing the plan for better results, while also checking for safety and compliance, and keeping every human stakeholder informed. With digital control of components like valves and pumps, it can directly manage rig equipment without human intervention. The ultimate vision? A fully mechanized rig that is, in principle, capable of executing a digital well plan automatically.
Though this will be a revolutionary level of sophistication, automation is far from new in oil and gas. Dynamic positioning has long kept rigs and drill ships on station. H2S monitoring systems can shut down ventilation and air conditioning in seconds. Automated drilling can already handle routine well sections, measuring rate of penetration then varying torque and weight on bit, moment by moment.
Digital systems will not be given full autonomy. We will still ultimately be in control, but just as an airplane’s computers prevent pilots executing dangerous maneuvers, so the domain knowledge and artificial intelligence of a sophisticated digital drilling system will help us better navigate drilling’s inherent intricacy and uncertainty.
Our new DrillPlan digital well construction planning solution shows the shape of things to come. It combines cloud-based collaboration with software engines that automatically encode—and enforce—all drilling standards and procedures. They validate well construction workflows, ensuring they are safe and coherent.
Full rig automation would deliver even greater performance and safety, with fewer personnel in harm’s way. With petabytes of historical data and domain knowledge to work on, advanced analytics can learn and improve with every well we drill.
Right now, the driller in the chair is still doing the driving. But to break through today’s safety and performance limits, they’ll need to share the ride with digital.