Advanced Upstream Oil and Gas Technology

Robin Macmillan, SVP, National Oilwell Varco
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Robin Macmillan, SVP, National Oilwell Varco

Robin Macmillan, SVP, National Oilwell Varco

The upstream oil and gas business is notoriously cyclical, and over the past few years we have gone through the toughest downturn since the 1980s. This has been driven by low commodity prices, but even before the downturn, it was clear that major oil and gas companies were operating at less than satisfactory profit margins. While those big industry players were considering in 2014 how to tackle this profitability challenge, they were hit by a severe drop in prices that those same operators could demand for their products. The need to address the issue then became urgent.

Industry downturns have always been times of innovation as companies turned to technology to dig themselves out of the financial hole. In the 1980s downturn we saw many new technologies come to the fore, including advanced drilling rig equipment such as the top drive and advanced measurement while drilling (MWD) systems to measure the direction a well is being drilled. We also saw increasing use of logging while drilling (LWD) systems to analyze geological features during the drilling process.

This time around the technologies we are turning to are once again in an effort to increase the efficiency of operations. Those of us that provide the products and services that oil and gas companies rely on, found that it has been necessary to help our clients improve efficiency so that their geological assets become commercially exploitable and, as a result, upstream activity increases, providing more business opportunities for all of us in the supply chain. This has proved fertile ground for several advanced technologies that NOV was already in the process of developing.

 The IntelliServ™ wired drill pipe adds a revolutionary data connection by including a coaxial cable along the length of the drill string from the rig to the sensors near the drill bit 

A few years ago, a tool called the BlackBox™ was designed as an analysis tool to determine the causes of poor performance. The data recorded helped identify performance variations such as poor operating procedures, unexpected geology or one of a plethora of other unforeseen circumstances and conditions that, until the advent of downhole data collection, could only be inferred from data measured at the surface. This data not only identified the reasons for varying drilling performance, but also provided the advice required to mitigate any future identified failures. The more data we gathered, the more we realized that there were many issues within the wellbore during drilling that could be addressed to improve performance.

At the same time, a new drill pipe, IntelliServ™, was being developed. Standard drill pipe acts as the conduit of rotary power, hydraulic fluid power, and weight to the drillbit. The IntelliServ™ wired drill pipe adds a revolutionary data connection by including a coaxial cable along the length of the drill string from the rig to the sensors near the drill bit. This can be several miles in length as the latest depth records are in excess of 40,000 feet.

For many years, we have been the leading supplier of structures, designs, and the topside drilling equipment essential to drilling rigs, both offshore and onshore. We have also provided the power and controls for the equipment. These control systems provide the driller with joystick control of the rig and the drilling process. It has been clear that during the drilling process the human-in-the loop (i.e. the driller) has multiple responsibilities, including the safety of the crew, which do not allow for undivided attention on the efficiency of the drilling process. This challenge was faced head-on with the development of a process automation system called NOVOS™. Bringing together downhole sensors, the rig control system with the IntelliServ downhole network connecting them together, has enabled an advanced automated drilling system that our industry has never seen before.

The process automation system is programmable. This takes the driller out of being the ‘driver’ of the rig to becoming a more focused supervisor of the drilling process. A software development kit is made available so that oil companies, drilling contractors, service companies, and academic institutions, amongst others, can write programs to deliver powerful consistency to the drilling process. Repeatability is a key benefit. Once a process has been honed to an unheard-of precision, it can be repeated almost perfectly. It is unreasonable to expect a driller, or a team of drillers, to achieve such a level of repetition. Repeatability also enables predictability. Operational predictability allows for logistical fine-tuning, enabling improved efficiency in the management of supplies to the drilling site. Operational predictability also allows for financial predictability. We have seen automated drilling programs prove that the number of days it takes to drill a well can be forecasted with much greater confidence.

Precision has become a key feature of the improved efficiency required to boost our industry’s upstream activity. The precision of well-placement requires ‘geosteering’ which in turn demands interpretation of downhole data during the drilling process. The use of wired drill pipe allows data from geological logging sensors to be streamed to surface providing, in real-time, an image quality only previously seen in memory mode, which allows for much greater clarity for those with well-placement responsibility.

Drilling efficiency is further improved by sensors along the drill string which allow for visibility of downhole conditions of temperature, pressure, and vibration, enabling mitigation of many of the issues that generate lost time during the drilling operation.

The economic need for drilling efficiency has created a demand for repeatable, predictable precision. Automated systems such as NOVOS are satisfying that demand and their accelerating adoption illustrates that the opportunities created by the recent activity downturn are not being wasted.

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