Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

High-tech makeover sweeping oil industry

Robots make drilling faster, safer

  • Print

HOUSTON -- NASA's Mars rover has something to teach the oil industry.

Traversing the Red Planet while beaming data through space has a lot in common with exploring the deepest recesses of Earth in search of crude oil and natural gas. Robotic Drilling Systems, a Norwegian company developing a drilling rig that can think for itself, signed an information-sharing agreement with NASA to discover what it might learn from the rover Curiosity.

The company's work is part of a larger futuristic vision for the energy industry. Engineers foresee a day when fully automated rigs roll onto a job site using satellite coordinates, erect 14-story-tall steel reinforcements on their own, drill a well, then pack up and move to the next site.

"You're seeing a new track in the industry emerging," says Eric van Oort, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive leading a new graduate-level engineering program focused on automated drilling at the University of Texas at Austin. "This is going to blossom."

Apache, National Oilwell Varco and Norway's Statoil are among the companies working on technology that will take humans out of the most repetitive, dangerous, and time-consuming parts of oil field work.

"It sounds futuristic," says Kenneth Sondervik, sales and marketing vice president for Robotic Drilling Systems. He compares it to other areas that are highly automated, such as car manufacturing or cruise missile systems.

Until recently, robots have been a hard sell in an industry that has long relied on human ingenuity, says Mark Reese, president of rig solutions at National Oilwell Varco.

"In the past, it's been all about, 'We need more and more people and experience, and that's the only way to accomplish this task,' " Reese said.

The 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico helped shift attitudes, says Clay Williams, chief financial officer at National Oilwell Varco. Eleven men were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire and sank. Statoil has projected automation may cut in half the number of workers needed on an offshore rig and help complete jobs 25 percent faster, says Steinar Strom, former head of a research and development unit on automation at the Norwegian company.

Robotic Drilling Systems is designing a series of robots to take over the repeatable tasks now done on rigs by pipehandlers, deckhands and roughnecks. Its blue, three-metre-tall robot deckhand has a jointed arm that can extend about three metres, with 15 or so interchangeable hands of assorted sizes. The robot is anchored in place to give it better leverage as it lifts drill bits that weigh more than a ton and maneuvers them into place.

The Sandnes, Norway-based company is collaborating with researchers at Stanford University on a three-fingered robot hand embedded with sensors that give it a touch delicate enough to pick up an egg without crushing it.

The Mars rover is designed to collect data and take action on its own based on programmed reasoning. As a step in that direction, some companies are working on technology that will make drill bits more intelligent and able to respond instantly to conditions they encounter, such as extreme temperatures or high pressures.

National Oilwell Varco of Houston, the largest U.S. maker of oilfield equipment, and Schlumberger, the world's largest oilfield services provider, have developed drill pipe wired with high-speed data lines to allow the bit to feed information to workers at the surface.

Apache, the third-largest U.S. independent oil and natural-gas producer by market value, is writing software that will essentially allow the drill bit to think for itself, communicating directly with equipment at the surface that controls speed and direction.

Graham Brander, the company's director of worldwide drilling, sees it working much like a plane on autopilot, flying on its own with a human on standby, ready to assume the controls if necessary.

"That's what I view very much as the automation model for the oil and gas business," he says.

Other breakthroughs are taking place onshore, where producers are racing to drill tens of thousands of wells in U.S. shale fields. On a recent morning in north Houston, Johnny Alverson, a senior foreman at rig builder Drilling Structures International Inc., fired up an 1,800-horsepower John Deere engine and picked up a remote control box as big as a car battery as he prepared to move a 51-metre-tall drilling rig without the aid of a crane.

With the push of a couple of buttons on the remote, the green light lit up next to "walk" and the rig slowly heaved itself up 12 centimetres off the ground on four large, flat feet. The $20 million monster can move at a rate of one-third of a metre a minute. Says Drilling Structures Executive Vice President P.J. Rivera: "You start to feel good about yourself when you can pick up a million pounds with the flick of a thumb."

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2012 B8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Mayor Bowman reacts to Caspian investigation

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 100527-Winnipeg Free Press THe Provencher Foot Bridge is lit up
  • A young gosling flaps his wings after taking a bath in the duck pond at St Vital Park Tuesday morning- - Day 21– June 12, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What's your take on the Jets so far this season?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google