Drill Floor Robot DFR-1500 - Photo courtesy of Nabors

How Much Has the Oil Industry Been Robotized and What Would It Gain in Taking This Further?

The continuous changes in the oil industry lead us to start searching for new technologies, and one of these is the processes automation in oil facilities.

Automated drilling systems mitigate the risk caused to drilling equipment, reduce costs and improve efficiency. Operating these systems remotely will be the next step in the oil industry, allowing operators to use their most qualified specialists to monitor and control operations continuously without exposing themselves to risks.

When it comes to the oil industry’s main activities, we get into a different world for each one of them. One of the most important activities of the industry is oil well construction, since this is the connection between the hydrocarbon reservoirs within the surface.

While creating an oil well, the industries invest in technology that saves time and money. These investments go from mechanical to electronic equipment, materials such as drilling fluids, well material like pipelines and logistics, among other things.

The human resources hired for these tasks tend to be the most important investment and the one that generates the most long-term expenses to companies, not only because of the payroll they represent, but because of any problem that may arise regarding occupational diseases or accidents.

Automating processes to reduce jobs in platforms, barges or drilling rigs are an activity in which the operating companies and some of the service ones have invested to overturn this type of system and thus reduce costs. The solution that is visualized in the nearest future is to replace workplaces with new technologies that are capable of performing those tasks carried out during oil well drilling.

Several companies took advantage of this reality. Statoil, now Equinor, the Norwegian oil company founded in 1972; Maersk Drilling, located in Denmark and founded in 1972; and Schlumberger, founded in France in 1926 among them.

These companies work in some countries as operators and in some others as service companies. They were investigated around their annual net profits and it was found that their drilling costs and their occupational security methods are their biggest and most important investment. At the same time, they were reviewed about the innovations they have achieved to automate their processes in the industry, considering the reduction of operational times in surface and bottom activities. Also, the impact they have on reducing the number of workers, minimizing occupational accidents and incidents during the drilling process, and decreasing operational costs.

Currently, the daily costs of drilling on land locations are set around $250,000 USD per day. In some cases, it could reach $300,000 per day (inhospitable sites or in war zones). On the other hand, drilling costs on offshore locations reach the $450,000 daily maximum costs.

Nowadays, the oil industry has acquired important automations of its processes, such as the following:

In the past, chains or ropes were used by workers to activate and generate the torques required by pipes, casing and BHA (Bottom Hole Assemblies). Currently, the Iron Roughnecks took its place, which works in a hydraulic and systematized way, replacing the workforce and doing the work with greater precision, efficiency, effectiveness and offering better and major security.

The mechanization and automation of the driller operations and his assistants have allowed reduction to the exposure of the drilling team to the dangers that come with the operation of pipe manipulation. The efficiency in the rig floor increases, and while drilling, it improves the wells’ quality. The mechanized drilling equipment connects the drilling string to the casing’s unions. The automated system consoles allow drillers to routinely monitor and control all facets of drilling operations.

The company, Equinor is dedicated to several sectors of the industry such as drilling, exploration, production and refining of crude oil; being highlighted as one of the most complete companies of the three mentioned before. At the end of the first quarter of 2017, it had a profit of $1,064 billion, according to www.preciodelpetroleo.com. It’s also notable that by the end of 2016 the company registered losses of $2.9 billion, approximately one billon refers to workers accidents (in 2016, the company had a helicopter incident where 13 people died while going to offshore drilling facilities).

Considering this, it becomes more necessary to apply the innovations required. Under this premise in April 2014, Equinor in conjunction with Odfjell Drilling invested in the company Robotic Drilling Systems in order to design four robots that are able to replace a large part of the rig floor staff, reducing not only the use of human workers, but also potential accidents. RDS (Robotic Drilling Systems) was acquired by Nabors in September 2017.

This robot is capable of centering the drill pipe and screwing effectively. It is a fully electric terminal, it has a weight capacity of 2,200 pounds, and the tip holding tool is easy to change. Among its advantages, there is the reduction of manual operations, and maximization of the times that it takes to pick up pipes or casings.

The almighty electric Roughneck is capable of applying a maximum torque of 270 KNm and it can handle torques in degrees. In addition, it’s totally electric and easy to maintain. Among its advantages, there are simple connections and the possibility to not only work with pipes, but also with casings.

The MSE-350, the boss in height, is the replacement of the top drive elevators. It has a capacity of 350 tons and it’s able to increase even more than this limit with the use of more energy to maximize power. Besides, it’s multimedia, therefore it’s not necessary to change pieces. Among its most important advantages, it’s known that it saves more than 5 minutes per pipe trip, and eliminates manual operations.

The Pipe Handler, the perfect partner, is fully electric with axial movements. It’s able to quickly raise the pipes to the rig floor automatically, and has a capacity of 7,700 pounds. Its main advantages are the ability to raise pipes to the ironing with speed and convert HTV operations into automatic.

These robots known as RDS, work in perfect harmony replacing the tasks of the rig floor staff, according to a Nabors news release, and it was tested in the operational area of Kvaal. In addition to Equinor, Nabors also acquired this technology, while Equinor is about to implement it in wells to be drilled in the North Sea.

Robotic Pipe Handler RPH-3500 – Photo courtesy of NaborsT-P Iron Roughneck - Photo courtesy of Cameron
Multi–Size Elevator MSE-350 - Photo courtesy of Nabors
Drill Floor Robot DFR-1500 - Photo courtesy of Nabors 
Drill Floor Robot DFR-1500 - Photo courtesy of Nabors
Author Profile

Raul Palencia is an engineer and researcher with more than 10 years of experience as a geologist. He graduated from the prestigious University of Andes (ULA), later he received a master’s degree in reservoir engineering at the Venezuela Hydrocarbons University. During his career development, he worked for oil companies in positions such as: field geologist, reservoir engineer and reservoir simulation. He has worked in Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela. He currently resides in Texas. 

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