Bytes and bits: New computers boost efficiency, safety of offshore drilling

Better computers, sensors and automation tools are allowing the search for oil to go deeper, farther and faster with fewer workers in harm’s way.

The technology advancements on rigs and platforms, some of which will be on display this week during the Offshore Technology Conference at Reliant Park, have put the industry on track to extend the life of subsea reservoirs with equipment on the ocean floor and remote monitors on rigs and on shore.

New sensors can gather information that wasn’t available in the past, and engineers reading it in digital form can make real-time decisions that help improve the operations.

“It’s not rocket science,” said David Eyton, BP’s head of technology. “Other industries use all of the information available to them in order to do better to improve. What is difficult about our industry is some of these environments are particularly harsh.”

Byproducts of the technology can include more oil and gas, fewer accidents, less downtime on rigs and in drilling operations, and smaller crews to accomplish the same amount of work.

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BP has been developing a suite of tools to make drilling and well completions more effective.

Among nine categories of items in that upstream technology toolbox are a program called BP well adviser and an ongoing effort at pushing reservoir limits.

The well adviser program uses real-time information to promote efficient, reliable and safe well operations.

Pushing reservoir limits involves maximizing oil recovery from existing fields through technology.

BP’s competitors also are using advanced computing power to enhance what they can do on the ocean’s surface and under it.

  • Irving-based Exxon Mobil Corp. says its “fast-drill technology” minimizes energy lost during drilling, increasing the efficiency of the operation. Information displayed on the driller’s console lets the driller know how much energy is being used whenever the bit is drilling. If energy use exceeds expected levels, the driller knows to look for something that might be getting in the way of the drill bit.
  • San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron Corp. developed a computer system that helps a remote operator steer a drilling tool in complex environments. The operator sends commands that direct the drilling operation and receives real-time data about the oil-bearing rock, according to the company.
  • French oil and gas company Total is using production equipment installed on the ocean floor and operated remotely by electronics aboard rigs to push the boundaries of what its engineers can do. It says the technology is helping counter the natural production declines from mature fields.

It all boils down to making the most of the time in the oil field at sea.

Eyton said nonproductive time on rigs averages around 30 percent across the industry. Downtime can result from such problems as machinery breakdowns, maintenance requirements on blowout preventers or other safety equipment, or stuck drill pipe.

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“Many of these situations are actually avoidable if you have the right information, the right feedback and the right decisions,” Eyton said. “Obviously, you can’t know what’s three miles down under the ground in advance, but you can find a lot of information as you go.”

Advanced remote monitoring of subsea operations is one way to do that.

Enter Rockwell Automation, a Milwaukee-based company that develops software and other technology for various industries, including oil and gas.

“You have to go deeper into the seabed floor, you have to drill deeper, you have to have horizontal drilling, and the technology is a lot more complex,” said Marvin Walton, Rockwell’s director of oil and gas business development for the U.S. “Automation is a tool being used to accomplish that.”

Placing equipment on the seafloor and operating it with adjacent automation tools, for example, can extend the life of reservoirs by 10 or 15 years, Walton said.

“It allows the operations to be a lot more efficient in the amount of oil you can recover and the number of people needed to staff that offshore facility,” he said.

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Walton said remote monitoring and control of rigs, platforms and subsea equipment also addresses safety.

“You have less people on the platform that are at risk,” he said.

BP’s Eyton cautioned, however, that the goal isn’t to reduce the number of people working at sea.

He said the goal of the technology is to make the operations work better and increase safety. More sensors and computers are being used than ever before.

“There is much more capacity for processing information available to us even locally on a rig than there was 10 years ago,” Eyton said.