Drilling automation tops list of technologies to watch between now and 2025

Automation of processes such as drilling and pipeline inspection is set to change the face of the oil industry over the next decade, DNV GL has predicted. In the case of automated drilling, companies such as Statoil are already preparing for commercial use.

Automated drilling is one technology tipped to change the face of upstream oil in the coming years (Image credit: ConocoPhillips)

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Norway’s Robotic Drilling Systems (RDS) is pilot testing its fully unmanned robotic drilling system and will deliver its first commercial well-flow robot for a Statoil project next year, RDS Chief Executive Arild Austigard told Upstream Intelligence. It will also deliver its first commercial robotic pipe handler to a contractor later this year. 

DNV GL has listed fully automated drilling as one of its technologies to watch between now and 2025. It praised the technology for its potential cost savings, and because it can cut the need for human presence in harsh offshore environments. DNV GL also identified smarter completions, autonomous pipeline inspection, smarter subsea tie-ins and the use of bio-degradable polymers in enhanced oil recovery as potential game changers for the oil industry.

Automation to reduce drilling costs

Øystein Grande, Principal Researcher at DNV GL and co-author of the Technology 2025 report, told Upstream Intelligence that automated drilling technology could reduce drilling costs by 30-50% compared with conventional rigs and reduce rig times by about 20%.

Advanced automation technology can change how a well is drilled but requires a complete re-design of the drilling-related process to reap the full benefit of automation.

In RDS’s case, in order to achieve a seamless system with good motion control the company has replaced the conventional hydraulic drill-floor machines with a new generation of robots. They are controlled by a software platform which allows for cooperation between the robots and easy re-programming, if the drilling program suddenly needs to be changed.

There is still an operator in place but their role it to tell the robots what to do, like “insert a new stand”, rather than how to do it. The robot will program itself on the fly and operate together with the other machines using an anti-collision system.

RDS said their system could avoid several thousand manual operations, reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions and provide potential savings of up to 40 rig days per year.

Pipeline inspection also heading for autonomous

Autonomous pipeline inspection also has great potential to deliver cost savings, reduce man hours and prevent safety issues, but wide-scale use onshore is likely to be further off than some of the other technologies, mainly because of regulation, said Grande.

“If you wanted to inspect a rig, normally you would have to have people climb on a structure to inspect it but with drones you could do it a lot cheaper and a lot safer, reaching places where it may be quite difficult to put a person,” said Jonathan Carter, former head of technology and innovation at E.On Exploration and Production.

The technology for unmanned surveillance both under water and over land has been developed by the defence industry and there are several services companies which supply both the defence companies and the oil and gas industry.

However, the use of this technology is being slowed down by insufficient or conflicting regulations, particularly those covering procedures in the civil airspace. The UK, for instance, allows the use of drones of up to 20 kg which limits the amount of sensors and equipment that can be loaded onto it. In the EU, a specially approved operator has to apply for flight authorization to do a specific aerial operation.

“The change in regulation will be driven by companies like Amazon which are fighting to be able to deliver packages on land using drones,” Grande said.

For overland inspections drones are typically loaded with cameras and other sensors making it possible to operate at nights or facing cloud cover, haze or smoke.

Inspections under water use subsea-inspection vehicles also equipped with sonars, cameras and sensors. These can detect leakages of oil or methane and are more efficient and cost effective than the current approach of using a remote underwater vessel controlled from a ship moving along the pipeline.

Subsea tie-ins get smarter

Subsea tie-ins are already in wide use but have the potential to become smarter, cheaper and more durable, DNV GL said. High capital and maintenance costs are a barrier to more-widespread use. This barrier was dismissed by oil companies when oil prices were high, but at lower oil prices they must reconsider, Grande said.

Having the technology for pumping and measuring being deployed where it is needed is much more efficient than if it is located topside,” Grande said, arguing that in the long run the cost benefits of using smarter subsea tie-ins will outweigh the start-up costs.

Carter noted that this technology is particularly useful in the North Sea where subsea tie-ins can be used to link smaller pools to an already operating platform, making smaller pools far more accessible. “The technology already exists, it is now a case of making it cheaper, less prone to failure and easier to install,” he said.

In the future a significant cost advantage could be achieved by far more active monitoring and analysis of the data provided by the subsea equipment. At present subsea system integrity and main flow parameters are monitored around the clock from remote-control rooms. But more active monitoring and data analytics could predict potential problems such as leaks and breakages and could reduce costly downtimes by pre-empting problems.

As ever, costs will play a large part in which technology is developed the fastest or is embraced by the industry.

By Vanya Dragomanovich