September 2023

Drilling advances

Dodging the hot zone
Robert Curran / Contributing Editor

Anyone attending an industry assembly undoubtedly will experience the ubiquitous safety moment, offering advice du jour on everything from how to return home without impaling your vehicle into a wall or avoid falling head-first while walking down a flight of stairs. 

Fittingly, the safety moment delivered at the June 27 IADC Drilling Engineering Committee (DEC) quarterly technical forum in Houston dealt with maintaining body functions at a time when being hot under the collar was taking on an entirely literal meaning across a good chunk of the world. While providing tips on managing through a record-setting heat wave was altogether appropriate, the recipients were comfortably gathered in an air-conditioned auditorium or were following the presentations virtually on their home or office computers. But how about the folks thrown directly into the oven?  

"I really appreciated the safety moment, but does that happen on the rig floor? Do you start your day off with a safety moment, or is it more about the work steps you're going to do or the job you're going to complete?" asked Brandon Benedict, V.P. of Operations for Patterson-UTI Drilling Co., during the forum exploring the latest in safety technologies and systems. "We can't just keep turning out technology and thinking technology is going to fix the problem. People are still out there."  

Granted, people are still involved in the process, and technology has not yet advanced to the point of air-conditioned rig floors, but others said recent advances have helped ensure hands go home with all body parts intact. Unlike the military that has replaced some fighter pilots with remotely operated drones, it is impossible to remove the primary danger source from a drilling operation. As of now, you still need a rig to drill a well, so the only option to is to put up hazard shields. 

Pushing the boundaries. Since you can't remove the potential danger, the best approach is to remove the people from said danger, and that's what NOV is attempting to accomplish at a test rig in Navasota, Texas, where it claims to be pushing the boundaries of automation and autonomous drilling. The most radical change was to move personnel and the driller's cabin off the rig floor, with a giant screen fed by multiple on-board cameras replacing an often-dirty window and rig floor visual obstructions.    

"We took people off the well center and rely on robotics for hands-off drilling," says Kevin Scherm, director of business development for NOV Rig Technologies. "As we relocate our crews, we're not taking people away from the rig. Instead of their time being focused at the well center, they now have time to do preventative maintenance." 

The experiment, Scherm says, elevates safety and performance with improvements seen in consistency, ROP, longer bit life and less downtime. Running the company's drilling optimizer application with process automation has increased average ROP 37%, compared to offset wells, while reducing drilling dysfunctions has generated longer bit runs.   

While land rigs have fully embraced process control automation with over 150 installations to date, he said the first robotics systems were deployed offshore earlier this year with two land installations on tap by the end of 2023. "We're not taking the cabins off the rigs yet. The great advantage to having this test rig is to do things we couldn't otherwise," he said.    

Exploiting computer vision. Despite all the procedural developments on buffer zone and barricade management, crew members still inadvertently wander undetected into hazardous areas, particularly around the pipe delivery system (PDS), where dropped tubulars remain a predominant risk. Exploiting the latest in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the operational enhancement group at contractor Helmerich & Payne uses computer vision to keep an eye on exclusion zones like the PDS.     

"Before we can be efficient in a task, we need to be safe," says Cole Carpenter, H&P product manager II. "With the computer vision portfolio, we want to use deep learning technology to enable better automation with operational efficiency and ultimately drive out the potential for serious injury or fatality events on location." 

In the proof-of-pilot concept, the computer vision technology was installed to monitor the top of the PDS, to provide audible and visual alerts when someone enters a hazardous zone. "It takes it a step further and shuts down the PDS, so as not to exacerbate the potential risk that may occur," Carpenter says. "It's only actuated when the PDS power is turned on and the hydraulics activated, which is the signal for the system to wake up, open its eyes and see what's going on around it."       

After 114 active days in one deployment, the two-camera system has logged 154 alerts. "By the end of the year, we hope to release a broader field of zone management across our rig fleet, rather than just the top of the PDS," he said.  

Still about people. Patterson's Benedict, however, says all the latest and greatest technologies do not mollify the industry's inability to retain hands, which in itself often results in unsatisfactory safety outcomes.  

"We've talked about automation and process safety, and we've talked about robots, but at the end of the day, we're still going to have people out there. We're going to have to have somebody move this rig," he said, pointing to a 2022 IADC alert that advised contractors to slow down rig moves because of an increase in safety incidents.  

Therein, he says, lies one of the primary culprits of safety incidents. "One of the things we hear is that this is the generation of entitlement. I disagree with that word. I would replace it with impatience. Companies have been built around our impatience, " he said. 

That general impatience, he says, is reflected in the dominance of performance-based drilling contracts, with caps on everything from rig moves to connection times. "We measure connections in minutes and seconds right now," he said. 

Retaining experience on the rig would go a long way to improving safety records, which he says goes beyond pay and incentives. While Patterson has taken a variety of steps to retain crew, even down to enhancing living conditions on the rig, Benedict said it all comes down to respect and concern over employees' wellbeing.  

"If you want to retain people, you have to show them you care about them," he said. "Safety (incidents) are pointed in the right direction and trending down, but we can't just keep turning over people and hurting people. Not one thing will fix the problem."   

About the Authors
Robert Curran
Contributing Editor
Robert Curran is a Calgary-based freelance writer.
Related Articles FROM THE ARCHIVE
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.