The Case for Action

With falling oil and natural gas prices, greater (cost-) efficiency and excellence in well construction is called for, particularly in plays with higher unit development costs ranging from unconventional shale development to ultra-deepwater wells. Thus, the time is right to (further) develop and embrace technologies that help optimize drilling and completion, as well as automate well construction tasks for efficient, repeatable performance delivered not only for individual operations, but also across entire fleets of drilling rigs. To aid in this effort and facilitate step-change drilling and completion improvement, the University of Texas at Austin is launching the Rig Automation & Performance Improvement in Drilling (RAPID) Consortium as a multidisciplinary Industry Affiliate Program (IAP).

Vision & Mission

RAPID is an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students from multiple engineering disciplines (petroleum, mechanical, and aerospace) whose objective is to deliver automation solutions for any and every aspect of well construction with the overall goal of reducing drilling/completion time and cost by >50% and reducing the number of individuals at the rig site by >50%. To do so, the RAPID Consortium will

  • Identify resources from both inside and outside the university, and actively pursue partnerships with other universities and research institutions around the world to progress well construction automation;
  • Develop automation education, training for the next generation of drilling engineers who must have automation expertise to facilitate technology transfer to industry;
  • Perform applied basic research, with the emphasis on applied. RAPID will actively pursue the development of meaningful, practical knowledge and technologies that can be rapidly deployed by member companies;
  • Provide focus for long-term, continual research by recruiting outstanding and diverse talent to advance the level of automation from lessons learned both in and outside the oil industry. Note there remains a large opportunity to leverage non-oilfield automation expertise for the oil and gas industry. These researchers will in turn attract outstanding student researchers in multiple disciplines providing a conduit for transferring development capabilities to consortium members;
  • Access to outstanding researchers, new technologies, and students with interdisciplinary training in drilling and automation which motivates a broad range of companies to support this effort. Thus, RAPID will provide a new and important arena for industry to come together to facilitate adoption, standardization and integration;
  • And consortium meetings are an excellent opportunity for member companies to provide input and guidance as well as prioritize research activities that account for the continually advancing capabilities from industry itself. Thus the consortium will effectively drive the adoption of advanced automation capabilities not only generated by the university efforts, but also by its members and member affiliates.

Value Creation, Delivery & Benefits

To meet the global energy demand in the face of falling oil and natural gas prices, it is either increasingly necessary to explore for oil & gas in increasingly remote (often hazardous) environments, and/or extract lower volumes from more wells. In either case, the unit costs dramatically rise (more remote wells or simply more wells).  Moreover, the chance of accidents occurring also dramatically increases.

Drilling automation will reduce the Total Drilling Time not only by reducing the technical limit, but also addresses challenges reducing Invisible Lost Time (ILT) and Non-Productive Time (NPT).

The oil & gas industry has already embraced decentralized automation for other phases of the production cycle such as remote operation of petrochemical facilities, but studies have shown that up to 1,000 on-site operations (valve operations, sample taking, scraper handling, inspection, maintenance, etc.) are currently performed by on-site staff and significant investment is required to automate these tasks. This list does not include higher value tasks completed by drilling engineers, mud engineers, etc. For many companies, it is too risky to invest in automation solutions unless the end solutions will impact a sufficient number of tasks to reduce costs, improve safety, and improve drilling efficiency. Additionally, the cyclical nature of the oil & gas business further deters long-term investments in automation even if the potential long-term benefits are evident.

Automation can not only improve performance but also increase ensure that wells are reliably drilled with peak performance as widespread non-optimized performance is reduced 

For these reasons, the consortium approach is sensible. The relative investment in automation by each company is relatively small and thus low risk and more robust to market forces. The development of automation solutions necessarily requires cooperation across the industry, and consortiums and industry collaboration (such as the Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS) of SPE) have proven to be good forums for such cooperation.

This approach creates multiple avenues for delivering value to consortium members with minimal risk.

  • Training the next generation of well engineers with automation skills where member companies have priority access to undergraduate, graduate and other funded participants.
  • In addition to graduate research (at MS, PhD, and post-doctoral levels), multiple undergraduate programs are planned including undergraduate research, RTOC employment, and sponsoring of senior design projects in multiple engineering departments. Thus, consortium members will have early access to a variety of undergraduate students with early exposure to drilling activities.
  • Many research efforts will support a common-sourced downhole physics model and communication protocols for both surface and downhole automation. Consortium members would have access to the developed software libraries developed through the efforts of funded consortium participants.
  • Access to UT Austin’s RTOC provides opportunities for consortium members to utilize consortium resources to analyze historical or real-time well data using a variety of industrially accepted and UT in-house software packages. The data and resulting analytics would be exclusive to the member who supplied it.
  • A practical, results-based approach to research provides that necessarily emphasizes the transfer the developed technologies in addition to exemplary experimental research.
  • This allows for the rapid commercialization and application of developed technologies for member companies. UT Austin has a proven record of transitioning promising technologies to industry. Through the consortium, members will have an opportunity to advise the consortium on where to focus commercialization efforts as well as have early access to any such efforts.

All research will be presented to consortium members at annual symposiums where members will have the opportunity to interact with other consortium members and funded participants. Software and research results will additionally be made available via a members-only website. Additional interaction opportunities are available including annual social opportunities, undergraduate project presentations, and one-on-one meetings to discuss results from any RTOC data analysis.

Challenges & Risk Factors

There are many critical challenges in automating drilling rigs that this consortium will address. At a high level, these challenges include:

  • The need to reduce well construction unit cost ($/bbl), through optimized efficiency and the prevention of non-productive time and invisible lost time;
  • The need for greater efficiency with repeatable performance that guarantees best-practice execution and is not dependent on any particular individual, his or her skillset and experience;
  • The need for improved safety, by taking people out of harm’s way through mechanization of labor-intensive tasks and facilitating remote operations and intervention;
  • The need for more pro-active maintenance on critical rig equipment (BOPs, top drives, mud pumps etc.), to avoid downtime associated with failures of such equipment. 

On a more detailed, technical level, the challenges include:

  1. dealing with the complex set of constraints imposed by the operational environment and equipment;
  2. dealing with the highly uncertain operational environment (both surface and downhole);
  3. resolving issues involved with collecting, interpreting and reacting to (progressively higher frequency) data collected from rig sensors;
  4. taking care of the innumerable tasks (and variations in those tasks) necessary to support the driller and maintain rig safety,
  5. Facilitating the intelligent automation or mechanization of the drill rig to complete processes with little to no operator intervention necessary, and maintain a safe working environment in the interim when humans and automated equipment share the same workspace.

The risk associated with the complexity of dramatically automating well construction is high, but it is significantly reduced when approached collectively (such as through a consortium). The financial risk is much lower as are the many unknowns generated by the activities of innumerable interested, but unconnected and competitive entities. Membership in a consortium does not require such entities to divulge any internal activities, but does provide access and influence and access to the directions and emphasis of the industry as a whole.

For more information, download our Guidance Document or contact Mitch Pryor or Eric van Oort