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Digital and remote-controlled: the rig of the future

DigitUP is the digitalization initiative of the OMV Upstream division – so of the division that is concerned with exploration, production and development of oil and gas fields. One of our lighthouse projects in this area is the "Digital rig of the future": the Drilling Cockpit and at a later date the Drilling Robot are set to make our drilling rigs safer, more efficient and more cost-effective. To find out how they work and what a Drilling Cockpit actually is, we spoke to Christopher Veit, OMV SVP Exploration, Development & Production Upstream.

DigitUP as a holistic program

The name "DigitUP" came from a spontaneous idea from one of our colleagues, "In actual fact we are digitizing and we are upstreaming. We also wanted to "up" digitalization, i.e. to bring it to the forefront. We liked this play on words so much that we decided to adopt it", explains Christopher Veit, OMV SVP Exploration, Development & Production Upstream. "Digitalization is generally understood as the use of digital tools and technologies in order to change business processes". So the main focal point here is on change. Digitalization projects at OMV are hugely multifaceted. "We identified around 90 projects, which are now underway worldwide. The next step will involve sorting them by topic and pinpointing the lighthouses, that's what we call our beacon projects. Examples here include the "Digital Oilfield", the "Digital rig of the future", "Digital office of the future", or "Digital ways of working". We are subsuming different projects and initiatives under these umbrella topics and assigning them appropriately", explains Veit.

And while digitalization has been around for decades at OMV, actually originating from automation, the goal of centralizing every initiative is a new development. Until now one division did one thing, the next one something else; it was all done without the coordination from head office. "With DigitUP we have tried to bundle everything that we do and then manage it via a central budget. But the priority is also establishing central quality control", says Veit.

What I'm particularly proud of regarding DigitUP is that we have put in place a holistic program in comparison to our competitors. This is an aspect that is often praised. We take a holistic approach to everything: the people, the digital ways of working, and the way in which digitalization will impact the organization as well as the culture – and all of this extends as far as the technical sphere. I think this is a real USP and one which keeps attracting a lot of respect from within the industry. 

Christopher Veit, SVP Exploration, Development & Production Upstream

The Drilling Cockpit as central source of information and control

The "Digital rig of the future" is a lighthouse project that's part of the DigitUP initiative. One component here is the "Drilling Cockpit" – but what exactly is it? Veit throws some light on the subject, "The individual rigs work in isolation across the world. With this digitalization initiative we are now striving to bring together all of the information from all of these rigs to a single location. And this is the Drilling Cockpit. This means that I can monitor every activity on any rig via central access in Vienna. And what's much better is that I have a team of experts sitting behind me who can give immediate feedback to those working on the rig should a problem occur. This means that potential problems are discussed immediately and the teams have instant access to the engineers. Imagine, for example, our teams in Tunisia that drill 24 hours, seven days a week and don't have constant access to experts – the Drilling Cockpit gives them instantaneous access. The Drilling Cockpit has been set up at our head office in Vienna and resembles a dispatch center: various drillings and parameters are depicted and monitored on multiple screens".

The Drilling Cockpit provides access to experts and facilitates early error detection

So the Drilling Cockpit is not just a pipe dream at OMV, it is already in use. But one thing that we still don't have: all drillings linked up. In order for the Drilling Cockpit to be able to show all drillings, we need to make certain modifications to the rigs. Sensors and data collection systems have to be installed and that phase has not yet been completed on every rig. But some are already operational. "To date we have only integrated the heavy rigs for complicated wells. By the end of the year we want all of the Romanian rigs to be connected and they are the majority – after all, in Romania we conduct over 100 drillings a year. In Romania we want to have all ten or eleven rigs online", adds Veit. 
 

In addition to the access to experts, the second benefit of the Drilling Cockpit is that every drilling is accompanied by a simulation in the background. "What this means is that a computer program is running in the background and constantly analyzing all current parameters as well as making forward calculations. So if there is a slight deviation that cannot even be perceived by the human eye, the computer recognizes it immediately. If the simulation of the value even minimally deviates, then the Cockpit sounds the alarm. Conversely I can identify possible problems much faster than the human eye. You have to imagine the driller sitting on the rig for 12 hours and constantly looking at his values. If a gradual increase occurs, it is possible that he doesn't even notice it. But the computer realizes this at once as the simulation deviates from the reality and so the alarm is sounded. This allows us to recognize serious failures early on, such as damage to the drill string or similar problems". 

The system behind the Drilling Cockpit is fully automatic to all intents and purposes; nonetheless, the expertise of our employees is required when the system identifies a deviation. This calls for an experienced specialist who can judge whether the deviation is relevant or not. This is where our experienced drilling engineers come in, as they interpret the findings. "An offshore rig can easily cost 500,000 euros a day. This means that if my drill string is not positioned properly then I have non-productive time, which can prove extremely expensive. This generates unnecessary extra costs".

We have a vision and it's called Drilling Robot 

At the moment what happens is that when an issue is recognized, the team from the Drilling Cockpit gets in touch with the drilling team on site and has an expert discussion to analyze whether we are facing a genuine problem. They clarify whether countermeasures should be initiated or not. At the moment this still happens by telephone or email. "In future – and this is the next step and our vision – we will have fully automated rigs in operation so that the only role people have to play is as observers. Activities that are currently done by people by hand will be managed centrally from the Drilling Cockpit and then a robot will execute them in line with the parameters. For example, you could increase the pump rate of the flush or the speed of the drill, things like that". We at OMV are currently working on a Drilling Robot of this type. In cooperation with RED (RAG Energy Drilling) and TDE (Thonhauser Drilling Engineering), we want to make this fully automated rig a reality. Data will be sent up constantly from the drill head via a drill string in which a cable runs underground. That's something we don't have at the moment. "There are some systems, but their data transfer rate is extremely limited. However, in future I will be able to transfer far greater amounts of data. This would be an evolution, as I would de facto be communicating with the drill string and sending it signals on the ground of what it has to do. Here we are talking about a robot. In combination with the simulation program that's already in use and a fully automated rig, in future I will be able to drill unmanned. And that is the vision", declares Veit.

It should be possible for a Drilling Robot to be able to handle simple tasks and routine activities relatively quickly, for example fitting and dismantling drill pipes. "However, if we are really talking about a robot that can make independent decisions, that will take some time. I believe we are looking at a time frame here of at least ten years until the R&D is advanced enough. For routine activities there are already systems in use in the USA. That's why we assume that we will also be able to achieve this relatively quickly. But what's missing is the link to the drill head and here we hope to conduct the first drillings in Austria in the fall. We have already tested the system on a test borehole in Norway, whereby we only drilled down a couple of hundred meters under laboratory conditions. So this was purely a test drill, whereas the planned drillings in Austria will be the first commercial drillings".

The vision for the future is thereby an automated rig capable of carrying out all activities fully automatically, that communicates with the drill bit, and has centralized process and control of all information. Veit concludes, "This would make us a true trailblazer as there is nothing like this anywhere in the world. We are still in the development phase, but first and foremost it's about making the drilling process more efficient and that means making it more cost-efficient to drill, or in other words: drilling more for the same outlay. What's even more important is making drilling safer. Rigs are a hazardous environment for employees as they always involve wielding heavy equipment. If high-risk activities can be done by a machine, then of course this increases safety".

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