April 2024
SPECIAL FOCUS: Offshore technology

Taming the red zone with automation

Increasing safety and reducing injuries during drilling is gaining momentum. Automation achieves these goals in the red zone by automating risk-prone, manual tasks. Automated installation of control line clamps has increased rig floor safety. Semi- and fully automated systems will become available commercially later this year.
Espen Sorbo / Ace Well Technology

The drill floor is commonly referred to as the red zone. Statistics show that this is the single most dangerous area in offshore activity. The red zone is where heavy machinery, including drill pipes, tongs, and rotary tables, operate ceaselessly. Workers in this area are engaged in tasks, such as connecting and disconnecting tubing and casing pipes, monitoring pressure levels, and overseeing and maintaining crucial equipment. Workers contend with high noise levels, vibrating machinery, and exposure to hazardous materials. The environment is characterized by tight spaces and limited visibility, amplifying the complexity and risk of tasks performed. 

Despite stringent safety measures for work on the drill floor, incidents such as slips, falls and injuries from falling objects account for a significant portion of accidents in this area, according to industry statistics. Moreover, equipment-related mishaps, including entanglements and crush injuries, pose grave risks to workers. In 2020, drilling accounted for almost half of the 14 fatalities in E&P globally.

Identifying problem areas. In the pursuit of enhancing safety and efficiency, initiatives aimed at reducing the presence of workers in the red zone have gathered momentum over the past decade. Through the implementation of automation and robotics, companies aim to minimize human exposure to hazardous environments while optimizing operational performance. Such innovations hold the promise of mitigating risks and safeguarding the well-being of workers in one of the most perilous settings on an oil and gas installation.

According to a work analysis by a major Norwegian operator on 12 North Sea platforms and rigs, one of the most repetitive tasks in completion work is also one of the most labor-intensive. Installing control line clamps while running tubing during the completion phase requires an average of 3-4 workers per clamp. This means that people are moving in and out of the red zone, handling heavy and moving equipment in a series of several hundred identical manual operations on a deep well. 

This analysis prompted the operator to start a program to reduce the number of manual work operations in the red zone. Several other majors have since followed in similar programs. 

The conditions on the drill floor, and an opportunity to move workers out of this zone, was the basis for an automated system, based on our Ace Control Line Clamp (ACLC) in 2019. Ace Well Technology approached a Norwegian operator, as its program accelerated. 

Fig. 1. Ace control line clamp installation tool.

Starting this development, we worked with the operator on a concept study to identify several challenges that we needed to overcome, to provide the simplest possible clamping solution that could be automated. We quickly decided on a two-tier, overall ambition. Ace committed to developing a semi-automated solution, as well as engaging the industry with the goal of finding partners to develop a fully automated version. As drill floor environments come in all shapes and sizes, we were cautious to go for a one-size-fits-all solution. The semi-automated solution would reduce manual tasks, not eliminate them entirely, but would have a smaller physical footprint, Fig. 1. The fully automated version may need drill floors with more space. 

Building on proven technology. From our perspective, the practice of mounting control line clamps on the tubing couplings seemed unnecessarily complicated, as this requires tailor-made clamps to fit the tubing in use. We were looking for a simpler, more flexible solution that could be mounted anywhere on a pipe of any dimension. This would allow for control line clamps to be mounted independent of coupling vendor or thread type. The only tailoring necessary would be the configuration of the Retention Lid holding the control lines in place. These vary, dependent on the lines needed for a specific well and the need to be configured independently. 

We have built Ace Well Technology on rethinking and improving established solutions. Our premier product, the Ace Ratchet Collar (ARC), is the foundation for our product portfolio. A reinvention of traditional stop collars, the Ace Ratchet Collar is a two-piece ratchet mechanism that is pre-mounted on the pipe and locked together with a simple tool to deliver an unrivalled holding force under all operating conditions, Fig. 2. With this superior securing method, we established a foundation for the development and application of new downhole accessories that can be mounted directly to the outside of the casing or liner.  

Fig. 2. The two-part ratchet collar is pre-mounted on pipe. When the two parts are forced together using an installation tool, the ratchet engages, providing unprecedented holding force on the pipe.

When we set out to find an automated clamping solution, we also wanted the ACLC to be independent of tubing couplings and threading. This would allow a much wider adoption across all operating licenses, and also ensure less labor-intensive procedures when the time for plug-and-abandonment comes. Of course, we saw the ARC as a vital building block for automating clamp installation. Designing a clamp built on our core technology would ensure that clamps are held in place securely with a holding force far greater than traditional clamps. Our tried and tested hydraulic installation tool was also well-suited for incorporating into an automated design.  

But we did have one major challenge. As a downhole technology specialist, we did not have much in-house experience in automation or robotics. Moving to robotics is a giant technology leap that we are not afraid to take, but we needed to be realistic and bring in some technology partners to bridge the skills gap.  

Testing downhole and topside. As we were introducing both new components for clamping control lines to tubing and a new procedure for how to do so, we had to get busy testing. Our tests were divided primarily into testing downhole components in wellbores and testing installation methods at test facilities topside. Our ARCs were already tested and qualified years back, but the new Retention Lid (Fig. 3) that was developed to lock into the ARCs had to go through full testing and qualification.  

Fig. 3. The Ace Ratchet Collar (left) and the retention lid (right) for control lines form the ACLC.

We tested at XRigs’ facilities outside Stavanger (Fig. 4) and at the Norwegian Research Centre test facilities in Stavanger. These downhole tests are designed to test your gear to the max with real-life conditions. Initial tests gave us several areas for improvement. Continued R&D solved all issues, and re-testing proved that the first ACLC assembly passed the tests and qualified for TR2385 in May 2021. To date, another five sizes have been qualified to the same level.

Fig. 4. Installed ACLC-mounted retention lid with control lines.

Topside testing concentrated on the installation process, operating without a robotic arm to bring it to the tubing. This entailed using a tugger winch to move the installation tool onto the completion string. Field tests at XRig proved the principle so well that an operator accepted the prototype for an offshore test on a major field in the North Sea. 

Radio-controlled second generation. Our first-generation semi-automated ACLC made its debut in April 2023 on a drill floor at a major field, as part of a customer testing program, Fig. 5. The system consisted of a control console connected to the clamping mechanism with hydraulic hoses. The installation tool was assisted by a manually operated tugger winch to swing the clamping mechanism (Fig. 6) close enough to the tubing to do the installation job. 

Fig. 5. The ratchet collar mounted on pipe (left) waiting for installation of the retention lid with the control line clamp tool (right).
Fig. 6. The installation tool engages the male and female collars to lock the retention lid in place over the control lines.


Work studies show that compared to a fully manual clamping operation, this method needed 2.5 workers per clamp, down from 3.4 on full manual. This field trial earned the ACLC a Technology Readiness Level 7 (TRL7) on 7-in. tubing and has further qualified a total of five clamp dimensions to reach the same TRL-7 level with a customer.  

The primary takeaway from the field test was the necessity of combining the semi-automated installation tool with a robotic arm and radio control capabilities. This set-up enables the operator to run the clamping process from a safe distance, vastly improving health, safety and environmental aspects. One operator, alone, can load the robot with a retention lid and radio control the rest of the operation, mitigating the most dangerous parts of the operation. 

The radio-controlled solution is currently being developed and tested at our office just outside Stavanger. Final testing of the entire radio-controlled version of the ACLC installation tool will happen this summer, ensuring that both downhole and installation parts will reach TRL-7 level. At the same time, a robotic arm development project is ongoing, together with both service companies and operators, to ensure adoption across drill floors. A bonus finding of our ACLC testing is that the speed of running tubing increases with automatic clamping. Safety is, of course, the primary goal, but we clocked tubing running at almost double speed, compared to manual operations. 

Fig. 7. Configuration options showing red zone personnel exposure reductions. The radio-controlled system will be commercially available in third-quarter 2024. The fully automated version was developed and marketed by Expro.

Fully automated version developed by Expro. For the fully automated version, we approached three major service providers, presenting our ideas to them. Of the three, Expro committed to the project, as they had already carried out considerable R&D on a robotic arm developed for drill floor automation tasks. They set up a separate development project, using our base clamping technology as the platform to build their automation on. Expro is close to launching its fully automated RCIS system commercially, providing the full benefit of automation to completely eliminate manual work in the red zone. 

Cleaning up for P&A. Whatever goes into the well must come out when the time comes for plug-and-abandonment. Planning ahead for ease of decommissioning is an additional benefit with the ACLC. In parallel with other development, Ace has developed a cutter for cold cutting of the female ratchet collar, releasing the Retention Lid and control lines in the process. As the ACLC is not mounted across a coupling, tubing can be spun off and backloaded with ACLCs mounted. Control lines can either be spooled or cut at the operator’s discretion, but a dedicated control line cutter is a future development we are looking at. 

Satisfying industry reception. As a specialist downhole component company, Ace has been moving in uncharted territory, exploring topside tool development. For us, this has been a challenging and rewarding experience. The most satisfying experience is the positive reception from major global operators, as well as Innovation Norway, who contributed funding in early development stages. Our main customer, the major North Sea operator, has been singularly responsive to our ideas and suggestions, and has contributed funding. As the R&D moved ahead, other major operators have expressed interest in the ACLC.  

The most challenging part of the project has been field testing in actual production conditions. This is, in our opinion, a bottleneck in development projects, as operators need to align with both organizational and technical factors to make field tests happen. Luckily, our overarching goal of reducing risk and accidents has played a vital role in pushing the right buttons to make things happen. We are convinced that the ACLC will be an important factor in driving safety improvements in the red zone for many years to come. 

About the Authors
Espen Sorbo
Ace Well Technology
Espen Sorbo is CEO of Ace Well Technology, based in Stavanger, Norway. He has more than 20 years of experience working for oil and gas service providers in downhole and completion operations. He held numerous management positions in the service industry before accepting the role of CEO at Ace Well Technology in 2018.
Related Articles
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.