January 2021

Drilling advances

Covid powers remote race
Jim Redden / Contributing Editor

Midway through a virtual conference a few weeks ago, I was felled by the cyber gods. Yet, juxtaposed with the human and economic carnage of the dreadful year just passed, it seemed appropriate to write of a disconnection, cyber or otherwise, as a mere annoyance.

As fate would have it, the one-day forum I had intended to follow to the end featured a “diverse selection of upstream stakeholders” examining the current state and potential of remote operations centers. The Covid pandemic has put the development of remote well construction operations on the fast track and revealed reliable connectivity as a major digital obstacle in the long-sought effort to drill wells with minimal onsite involvement.

“One of the biggest bottlenecks is the connection itself. In the North Sea, we have fiber optic cables to the rig site and even then, you sometimes have internet outages or connectivity outages,” Baker Hughes Senior Product Manager Shady AlNofaily told the quarterly IADC Drilling Engineering Committee (DEC) technology forum on Nov. 18.

AlNofaily said the redundancies typical of any oilfield operation should extend to connectivity with satellite backup and a set-up to enable some services to be run at minimal levels until full communication is restored. “We need to make sure data captured from all the sensors at the rig site are transmitted to town, and we need to make sure it’s transmitted securely, efficiently and available for use whenever you need it. That presents a lot of challenges,” he said.

Dependable connections are among the issues Baker Hughes and its contemporaries must confront as they accelerate remote operations initiatives, which promises to permanently reshape the way the industry functions going forward. With the pandemic leaving workforces and balance sheets sorely depleted, the need to cut costs while maintaining HSE standards has perhaps never been greater.

Beyond status quo. Remote operations in some form or fashion have been around for decades. Despite significant advancements over the years, the latest generation of cloud solutions in tandem with digital frameworks with sensor fusion, has rendered shore bases with multiple screens and video walls outdated for making complex real-time decisions, said Dr. Robello Samuel, Halliburton chief technical advisor and senior fellow for well engineering. Pointing to the Covid-inspired escalation of telemedicine, he said, “Can we use similar systems to monitor the health of our wells and our assets? We want to take it from the rigs to the palm of our hands.”

In what might sound to earlier generations like something out of a sci-fi anthology, Samuel described an emerging Halliburton initiative to develop a virtual and modular Unified Command and Operation Cyber Center (UCOC) “in the third dimension for end-to-end visibility with interconnected disciplines through a single glass pane window—an integrated, but dynamic and distributed control, shared across the enterprise and accessed by anyone at anytime, anywhere.”

Baker Hughes, for its part, formed the BHC3 alliance early last year, teaming up with leading artificial intelligence (AI) software provider C3.ai to accelerate digital transformation across its Oilfield Services (OFS) and Turbomachinery & Process Solutions (TPS) business units. “We provide the domain knowledge, and they provide the infrastructure,” AlNofaily said. “This is where we see the future. We need to get to the point with automation, where all services are delivered remotely.”

That’s a commitment that comes from the top of his organization. “We view the expansion of remote operations in OFS and TPS as key enablers to drive better cost and margin productivity,” CEO Lorenzo Simonelli told analysts on Oct. 21.

Operators vs. operations. In the drive toward drilling a well from afar, it’s critical to first evolve from simply having operators stationed offsite to full-fledged remote operations. In other words, stationing someone before a computer in a comfortable office to track drilling progress does not necessarily constitute remote operations, says Hunter Simmons, R&D and engineering supervisor for Gordon Technologies LLC. of Scott, La., which provides remote measurement-while-drilling services. He drew an analogy to F1 auto racing, where obviously speed and performance are primary success indicators.

“One of the more notable innovations in this sport has been the proliferation of streaming central data from the cars. This data is analyzed by the race team, composed of engineers and technicians, to optimize everything from brake load and wear to driver G-load under acceleration. This interaction allows the team to push their cars to new heights of performance, efficiency and safety,” he told the forum.

“So, do we achieve these advances by simply re-locating the driver? The progress came when the entire team was connected to the race and was able to monitor every aspect of their car with live, streaming data.” AlNofaily agrees, adding that true remote operations must begin at the well planning stage and continue through to project execution. “What is the benchmark? This is not as easy as it sounds, as data must be gathered between the operator, rig provider and service providers. No single provider has all the data that is needed. How do we connect all the services together? Each service provider has a stake in the platform and we need to make sure all the providers are operating on the same level,” he said.

This requires open platforms, which also raises the thorny issue of managing the protection of companies’ respective intellectual properties. That’s where the incorporation of blockchain technology comes into play. “With blockchain, you can maintain the contracts and decide whether you want to put it in the marketplace,” said Halliburton’s Samuel.

About the Authors
Jim Redden
Contributing Editor
Jim Redden is a Houston-based consultant and a journalism graduate of Marshall University, has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and corporate communicator, primarily on the upstream oil and gas industry.
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