Automated oil and gas well control

Louise Smyth

Juliana Bond explores a further step towards the automation of oil and gas well operations

One major oil and gas industry challenge is that well control is entirely reliant on a single human being to detect an influx and safely shut-in the well. The complex sequence of events required by the driller to make a well safe following an influx includes a complex mixture of human factors, knowledge and physical skills. These include: Situational Awareness Levels 1 to 3; knowledge of the rig and drill string; knowledge of the formation pore pressure and mud weight; short- and medium-term memory of up to five drilling parameters; and fine motor skills to drive the equipment to the appropriate place and then stop the mud pumps and top drive.

On cyber rigs, much of the actions are needed on a system designed with little regard to the ergonomics required for a series of fast actions that must be done precisely. A series of decisions need to be made, often with competing drivers, and the implications of making the wrong decision are dramatic. Additionally, the individual may be required to function the Blowout Preventer equipment, which is not a daily occurrence, so they may not be fully familiar with its functionality. Once functioned, the driller is required to verify it has functioned correctly. The worker is expected to diagnose a potential fault and function other components until the well is sealed. All of this is done under the goal of minimising the volume of the influx.

There may be dramatic implications for creating non-productive time and subsequently affecting the driller’s career. This creates a stressful situation. One end of the scale is creating a major accident and the other end of the scale is preventing a major accident. Given the complexity of the required tasks and the ever-increasing demands on our drillers, it is understandable that up to 67% of blowouts are caused by human factors issues.

What does automated oil and gas well control do?

Oil and gas well control can be improved by using automated technology. An automated well control system has been developed by Safe Influx to recognise an influx whilst drilling ahead, space out, flow check, stop the mud pumps and top drive, flow check and, as necessary through the sequence, activate the BOPs to safely close in the well.

All of this is done with machine code instructions enabling simultaneous commands to be issued and executed. The well and equipment control algorithms enable swift detection and shut-in of an influx, dramatically reducing the volume of the influx. A smaller influx volume results in more well kill options and less time required to resolve the situation before resuming productive operations.

Monitoring signals from the rig’s existing systems are read within the central control system. As required, signals are sent to control the various drilling rig equipment.

A faster and smarter solution for oil or gas wells

The automated system covers all rigs, onshore and offshore, regardless of location, water depth and well type. The technology allows continuous monitoring and error-free execution of well control operations, reacting to an influx as soon as it is detected.

Comparison tests have shown that the technology enables shut-in times up to five times faster than current conventional human interface methods, with influx volumes typically 20%-25% of those experienced during manual shut-in.

The Safe Influx system consists of a small unit and HMI touchscreen for the driller to configure and operate. The driller sets up the parameters to initiate an automated well control sequence. The system is designed to let the driller know what is happening at all times and what the next event is. Therefore, the crew member can intervene at any moment to stop the automated sequence progressing. The shut-in sequence is pre-determined by the operator and drilling contractor and the driller sets the system up accordingly.

The system design goals, equipment, software and functionality have been assessed by an independent verification body, resulting in a technology qualification certificate being awarded. This demonstrates that the system has achieved its stated design goal of automated gas or oil well control. Ultimately, this technology could prove to be a game-changing solution to the oil & gas industry; improving the safety, environmental and cost performance of drilling.

Juliana Bond is with Safe Influx