By: John Clegg, Weatherford Fellow, Drilling, and Director, Digitalisation and Automation
Even in the best of times, trying to predict the future is not easy. Add in an unpredictable confluence like the COVID-19 pandemic driving down demand and geopolitical issues increasing supply, and the crystal ball becomes murkier. Making sense of the myriad possible futures available to us right now is challenging, but it is still worth trying to predict what our future might look like and how we get there. I’m going to go out on a limb and attempt to envision the future of drilling. Although our industry is going through a transformation, current events may hasten ongoing changes, including reductions in force, less travel, environmental issues, increased need for cost-effective solutions, and higher importance of the value of the well.
One of the building blocks that is likely to underpin our future is automation. We already see a lot of progress on rig automation, and I expect that same progress downhole. We are not going to wake up one morning to a downhole robot in the same way as we will not wake up to a fully automated rig. Automation will be achieved by gradually yet continually automating processes and equipment, in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary way. We will cautiously add the sensors, features, and processes that enable automation to downhole drilling tools and test them to improve capabilities. We are already some way down the track with directional drilling. We have already automated control of the tool face when drilling with a directional motor and of the direction when drilling with a rotary steerable system (RSS) – for example, the Weatherford Magnus RSS.
Before talking about where we may go next, consider our second building block: data. As an industry, we can collect remarkable amounts of data while we drill. We now have platforms that enable consolidation, comparison, and analysis of data in real-time from many different sources and locations, such as the Weatherford Centro wellbore optimisation platform. Such a platform enables instantaneous modelling and live analytics to provide advanced insight while drilling. We also have sophisticated theoretical models of the drilling process, including but not limited to hydraulics, torque and drag, drilling mechanics, vibrations, and directional and formation tendencies. By combining these models with the data that we have in machine-learning applications, we can fine-tune our models and replace assumptions with real-world experience. This fine-tuning gives us increasingly representative and useful models of our real-word applications for very valuable digital twins. The Weatherford Victus intelligent MPD system, capable of automatically detecting and circulating out influxes, uses just such a hybrid of theoretical modeling and data for training and tuning those models for managed pressure drilling (MPD).
Taken together, our increasingly automated systems and their digital twins enable us to achieve more with less, which means better performance with fewer people. How far could this go? Could we finish up with autonomous downhole robots, seek out the sweet spots of reservoirs, and drill the most productive wells possible without intervention? The simple answer is yes. We already have rotary steerable systems capable of tool face, dogleg, and direction control. We already have directional advisory systems, a kind of GPS for directional drilling. We also have the logging-while-drilling measurements we need for geosteering and reservoir navigation, and of course, we have the MPD systems that we need to drill safely and control pressure. I do not think it is a question of if we combine these technologies into a robotic drilling tool. I think it is a question of when. And despite the challenges we currently face, recent events may have made achieving it even more desirable.
John Clegg is a Weatherford Fellow in the Drilling Domain, Director of Digitalisation and Automation Domain, and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) Adviser for Weatherford. Over 34 years he has worked in multiple countries in engineering, manufacturing, sales and operations with upstream technologies including drill bits, drilling motors, rotary steerable tools, measurement-while-drilling, logging-while-drilling, managed pressure drilling and drilling automation.