Automation in the offshore oil and gas industry is nothing new. Dynamic positioning for station-keeping on floaters and drillships were amongst the first fully automated systems in the offshore industry.
"All modern offshore rigs nowadays have cybernetic driller's chairs with joystick controls for key topsides equipment manipulation, and rig builders are now starting to outfit rigs with automated pipe handling and automated tripping systems," says Eric van Oort, a professor of petroleum and geophysics engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.
"It is a continuing process towards progressive adoption of automation," adds Oort, who worked for Shell for 20 years.
However, the industry has stopped short of adopting fully-automated processes for offshore drilling, focusing instead on 'human-centric solutions'.
"Different levels of automation for pipe handling and assembly are available from all manufacturers, and have been for a while, with this process being run by one to two people in a control room," says Tore Kuhnle, principal researcher, DNV GL Oil & Gas. "But it's not running itself."
"The big part missing is integrating the different systems, especially with all the data being gathered while drilling and letting the system respond automatically to what is going on," he adds.
Technology exists, but few adopters
The benefits of fully automating the drilling process are well known. Mechanising certain processes, such as pipe handling, for example, takes people away from the drill floor and therefore reduces the probability of accidents.
"Sophisticated sensor technologies coupled with powerful data-analytics can now be used for early kick detection, allowing wells to shut in earlier with smaller influx volumes, facilitating well control. All of this will meaningfully benefit safety," says Oort, who runs a research and development group facilitating high-frequency data analysis for small to medium operators called the RAPID (Rig Automation and Performance Improvement in Drilling) consortium.
There are also efficiency and cost-saving benefits to consider. Machines typically run automatically, reliably and consistently and don't suffer fatigue or loss of concentration like humans can.
"The cost saving is not through cheaper equipment, it is through faster drilling with fewer people on board," says Kuhnle. "If full automation can reduce 30% of the drilling cost - different sources vary between 30-50% - and production drilling cost is 50% of CAPEX, then this will lower the investment by 15%, which is significant."
Automated drilling technologies are available. Equipment manufacturer Huisman is currently delivering the most radical and automated drilling package, which is mostly for automation for pipe handling and assembly, removing people from this process and speeding it up.
"Huisman take a functional approach to automation," says Oort.
"They do not blindly mechanize, robotize what humans used to do on offshore rigs, but look carefully at the function that a machine or system needs to perform and then build an innovative functional solution to address the function."
Noble were early adopters of the Huisman system but there are no other obvious adopters or operators willing to take up the technology.
"The oil and gas industry is notorious for an extremely slow deployment of any new technologies, especially potentially high risk technologies. This is true even for technologies that are associated with significant HSE improvement and cost reductions," says Ekaterina Minyave from OTM Consulting, which provides specialist technology advisory, development and deployment services.
"In this case, drilling as one of the top risk activities is seen by many operators as too sensitive an activity to allow machines to handle," she adds.
"Right now, offshore is challenging as new rig orders are cancelled, and an automated rig is years away as the market is completely saturated offshore and asset prices have collapsed as witnessed for some drillships lately," says Kuhnle.
"There is a large fleet of new conventional capital intensive floating rigs with low utilization, meaning there will be limited number of new-builds over the next years. These rigs will in any case require maritime crew on board during drilling operations, limiting both cost cutting and degrees of freedom."
But the biggest challenge, perhaps, is changing the way an offshore well is drilled, a process that has been essentially unchanged for 100 years.
"One shouldn't underestimate the challenge in, and resistance towards, changing how things are done operationally, all the way from the procurement, via logistics, to the drilling manager carrying the responsibility," says Kuhnle.
"Automated drilling will fundamentally change how a well is drilled and operational and regulatory challenges will need to be resolved. The big question is if the oil industry and its regulators are ready for the changes, or if the opportunities are not fully embraced because of resistance to change and bureaucracy."
Taking the human out the loop
"On an automation scale of 0 to 10, where 0 represents full human control with no automation and 10 represents full automation control with no human control, most people right now feel comfortable with progressing automation to a level 4/5, where smart automation technology informs human drillers who ultimately take all key decisions," says Oort.
"As a scientist, however, I take the long view and see a future where some if not all decision-making tasks may become fully automated, maybe even restricting what humans can and cannot do - this has happened in other industries, for instance, pilots on Airbus planes are not allowed to put the plane into stalling conditions."
However, despite companies such as Shell, which maintain an active and advanced automation programme, and Chevron's Mudlift DGD system, which is expected to have a high degree of automation when it goes into routine use, industry take-up of this game-changing technology is expected to be slow.
Asked whether many companies will be willing to invest their money in more fully automated technologies today, Kuhnle says: "The answer would be no. There are no new rigs coming over the next years. This means that despite the large suppliers of rigs probably being ready to make these quite soon, it will still take time and suiting the 2025 horizon of DNV GL's Technology Outlook."
"The big question is," he adds, "if the oil industry and its regulators are ready for the changes, or if the opportunities are not fully embraced because of resistance to change and bureaucracy."