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SPE 111125

The Evolution of Automation in Drilling
Alfred W. Eustes III, Colorado School of Mines

Copyright 2007, Society of Petroleum Engineers
This paper was prepared for presentation at the 2007 SPE Annual Technical Conference and
Exhibition held in Anaheim, California, U.S.A., 11–14 November 2007.
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This paper has been written for the keynote speech to be given
in the “Drilling Automation – Where Are The Game
Changers?” plenary session for the 2007 SPE Annual
Technical Conference and Exhibition in Anaheim, California.
The paper covers the evolution of drilling mechanization and
automation from the mid-nineteenth century to today. In the
history of drilling, there have many aspects of drilling
mechanization and automation that have been investigated,
machines designed and built, and operations implemented
with varying levels of success and many failures. These
aspects include drilling fluid systems, cementing operations,
downhole automation, and the rig floor. Because drilling
mechanization and automation history has been centered on
the rig floor and related surface operations, the focus of this
paper is on the rig floor for drilling operations such as rate of
penetration, rotary systems, rig floor mechanization and
automation, and entire drilling rig automation.
Mankind has always found wealth under the Earth’s surface,
whether it be water, brine, oil, gas, or gems and minerals.
Accessing that wealth has been the challenge. The drilling rig
is one of the machines developed to access that wealth.
It all started with a pole, a rope, a heavy weight, and a lot
of labor. These first rigs were percussive drilling units called
cable tool rigs. These units, popular until the mid-twentieth
century, were the only way to drill until the mid-nineteenth
century. On January 9, 1845, Robert Beart in Great Britain
was granted a patent on the first of a new style of rig, the
rotary rig with continuous circulation.5, 8
Regardless of whether percussive or rotary systems were
used in these early years, the tasks were repetitive and
required human manual strength. These early rigs were a
nightmare of dangerous and unguarded equipment and
hazardous operations. The roughneck was not named thus for
his knowledge.

Anywhere repetitive or dangerous operations take place,
the allure of mechanization and autonomy beckons. The
automotive and aeronautical industries have recognized this
for years. The automotive industry in particular has
mechanized and automated the manufacturing floor and leads
in many areas of robotics. The drilling rig floor is clearly one
of those places where this can be useful.3
The process for technology development follows a path.
Phil Vollands of Varco International has stated that there are
three eras of evolution: mechanization, semi-automation, and
local automation.12 The process starts with mechanization.
That is, removing human power and labor and substituting
mechanical power. Not only does that get the human out of
the way, it allows for more force and torque to be applied.
The next step is to automate the particular operation. At this
point, the human’s role changes from brute strength to using
their intelligence to supply the machine the brains and vision
for the automated operation. That makes this a local semiautonomous operation. An ultimate goal is to completely
automate an operation making it totally autonomous. No
human intervention is needed except for startup and for
emergencies. This is becoming a reality with the advent of
robust computers and programmable logic circuits (PLC).
The motivation for rig mechanization and developing
autonomous rigs are many. It starts with safety. Removing
people from the area of heavy moving machinery clearly
enhances safety. This is the goal of many operators,
contractors, service companies, and regulatory agencies
around the world.
Another motive is to reduce the number of people on the
rig floor. Over the last few decades, the number of people
entering the drilling industry has been declining.
Mechanization and automation can reduce the required
number of people not only on the rig floor, but also on the rig
itself. It also reduces costs associated with the head count.
Operating in harsh environments is another motive. In
cold and windy or severe wave conditions, human ability to
control the rig floor diminishes. Machines designed for the
particular environment are not as affected and can continue
operations whereas human operations would have to wait on
There are also efficiency motives.
For example,
efficiencies manifest themselves in the area of drilling
operations where the “optimum” rate-of-penetration can be
determined and operations set at that condition. Operational
efficiencies can be gained with the automation of repetitive
tasks such as tripping. The tripping operation can be faster,
safer, and more precise. Tripping speeds can be more precise

One such unit was by Baroid. not unlike some of today. the brother of Walter of drill bit fame.8 There were various approaches to automatic drilling feed mechanisms. When the drill string weight was sufficient. In addition. In addition. there is no evidence it was actually built. this is weight-on-bit. these mechanical systems had limitations of preciseness and non-linear response curves.8 In the late 1920’s.9 It still took the development of the drawworks brake before the automatic drill feed could be practical. The Hild mechanism was similar but used an electric rotary and drill feed motor.8 In the 1930’s. Improved brake linings and brake rims helped this situation somewhat. The digital/analog system that included a mixture of electrical and pneumatic components. When the torque to drill exceeded a certain amount. 12. According to an Oil and Gas Journal article from 1928. However. The unit could push down when there was not enough drill string weight. 8 It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that drillers even knew what the weight on bit was. 11 Regardless of the type. The hydrodynamic brake was developed in the 1930’s and the electromagnetic brake later that decade. the 111125 use of drilling torque or rotational power. most drilling feeds were controlled by a single band brake on a cast iron brake drum. 21 Automating Drilling Operations Automated drilling operations started with the rock penetration process itself. This system was based on managing the weight (or pressure) on the bit through an electro-mechanical device.2.9 The first weight indicator to look like today’s systems was developed by Elmer Decker and Frosty Martin in 1927. these were not particularly sucessful. A rig that is automated has the potential to be remotely monitored and controlled. However. The engine was on another jack shaft. The earliest patent on a bit weight indicator was granted in 1906 to John Sharp. That is. one of the primary motives has been to reduce operating costs.3. A young engineer offhandedly suggested using a diaphragm instead. the use of computer controls for rig operations was being considered. Leonardo DiVinci developed a drill feed using a screw mechanism back in the 1500’s. further refinements in rig instrumentation and analysis of drilling variables have helped push these systems further. Most drill feed systems in the early twentieth century made use of a feed mechanism that employed the band brake.15 In 1997. Leschot’s drilling system consisted of a hydraulic piston that could push and rotate the bit. since a machine can be programmed. the use hydraulic cylinder feeds. literally from around the world.6 – 3 m). and a weight on bit control system. Howard Hughes Sr. However. In the 1940’s. Thus an industry was born. Paraphrasing Brantly from his book. The system used simulations to compare actual versus expected conditions and made changes accordingly. The Halliburton mechanism consisted of a steam or electric motor with a differential gear on a jack shaft. it is only as good as the . This made controlling the rigs brakes challenging.3.2 and closer to computed maximums to minimize surge and swab problems. These systems were chain driven and set between the prime movers and the drawworks. and Jenks of Westinghouse patented an automatic driller for rotary systems. This restriction. the feed control of the bit as it drills. The Sheldon machine consisted of two hydraulic cylinders on either side of the rotary table. The hydraulic piston was fed by a steam driven water pump. In other words. 15. These units. And finally. a mechanical differential was used to “regulate and stabilize the pressure of the drill stem on the bit”. They were connected to two electric motors. there was the old tried and true driller with his hand on the brake. Prior to that time. 20. Halliburton (National Supply Company) and Hild (Oil Well Supply Company) both built a torque based machine. The Doheny-Stone Company (predecessor to Hydril) came out with a hydraulic feed system. The deflection of the drilling line was a direct measurement of the load. too. It could be used conventionally with a kelly or as a 30 inch (76 cm) stroke hydraulic system. new automatic drill feed systems were developed. the drill string was retrieved until the torque dropped back to the prescribed condition. Smaller rigs also mean reducing mobilization and demobilization time. This effort resulted in significant improvements in drilling efficiency. had stroke lengths of 2 – 10 feet (0. Another motive for automation includes reducing rig weight and size allowing for a smaller rig with a smaller environmental footprint. along with the fact that they were slow and came out in the economically disastrous Great Depression. pneumatic actuated feed control of band brakes were designed and built. The metal to metal brakes of 1912 did not allow for a smooth feed. which had not been invented yet. It consisted of threecylinders and a hoist. similar to Leschote’s mechanism. Dillon. However. The control system was a closed loop that measured and changed weight-on-bit and rotary speed (and secondarily torque) by varying the engine throttle.7 Even as early as 1971.8 The first construction of an automatic feed control is from the early 1860’s. 10. It needed the development of O-rings. hydraulic feed rotary tables were developed. more complex operations can take place. Dreyer. this invention didn’t work very well as it leaked. With the advent of new types of drawworks brakes and of computer control. limited their deployment. It had a piston fixed at the vertex of a triangle with the drilling line pushing on the piston. Helmerich and Payne and Varco develop an electronic bit-feed control system. as is true with any computer system. Rodolphe Leschot of France built the first automatic bit feed for his invention of the diamond core rig for drilling blast holes for European tunnels. from the beginning of the history of rig mechanization and automation. monitored variables such as depth and time along with normal mud log type data. 8 The weight-on-bit automatic drill feeds were what eventually took the market.3.5 hp (5 kW) motor for drilling and a 35 hp (26 kW) regulating motor. along with others of this time. It was this motor that took up the slack from the drilling motor when the bit loaded excessively. 3. a valve was opened just enough to regulate the feed rate into the hole. a 7.16 In 1935. also received patents on various bit weight indicators between 1914 and 1923.

46 m) diameter holes in glacially deposited material. it took a well trained driller to operate the system. However. A 1977 patent claims that the iron roughneck is a combination of power slip. a pneumatically controlled set of slips. The process continues with each addition to the offshore rig fleet. and torque. 20. And the driller’s consoles have gone from rudimentary weight and pressure gauges standing out in the weather to sophisticated computer screens with process specific information (i.000 feet (22.860 m) of 6 1/4 inch (15. In 1983. drilling operations with power swivels were a relatively rare event. And in 1986. A power swivel was used on the NOLA 1 drillship. Byron Jackson Company developed a prototype of a three-arm pipe racking system. the first full column racking system was introduced on the Transocean 8 semi-submersible rig. In 1955.8 One advantage of this type of rig is that it has a smaller floor footprint and a lower center of gravity. joystick controls. and stick-slip prevention. the rig was never built. 4 Offshore. and tubing. The unit was a single lay-down type that automatically racked the pipe. Automating the Rig Floor The rig floor has seen the most automation of all drilling systems. iron roughnecks have been diversified to include handling not only drill pipe. the first mechanical iron roughnecks were developed by Varco. bottom hole assemblies including stabilizers. tripping. humans were needed to control the hydraulic systems through joystick control. In 1955. the first floating rig included a laydown pipe-racker and horizontal pipe storage system. but also drill collars. and stabbing guides. 7. They can also handle the torque requirements of the latest generation of pipe threads. The 3 first powered rig floor system consisted of making slips easier to handle. 8 Perhaps the most important mechanization improvement to the rig floor was the “iron roughneck”. the Byron Jackson Company introduced the BJ Power Slip. In addition.3.20 Varco introduced a pipe pick-up and lay-down system that completely eliminated human intervention anywhere in the pipe path. Most of the danger on a rig exists on the rig floor. Brown Oil Tool and Bowen developed the first electric power swivel for ARCO Oil and Gas. However. the first system to remotely manage pipe on the pipe deck was developed. auto drilling. This swivel was called a “Top Drive Drilling System”. Moving people off the floor enhances safety significantly.3. In 1949.111125 software.000 hp (750 kW) DC motor and pipe-handling system. This unit was originally designed for coring operations. These early model power swivels eventually went on to drilling operations with up to 15 inch (0. It consisted of a mechanized hydraulic elevator with the hydraulic cylinders set below ground level (in a mouse hole type of arrangement). Until the introduction of computer systems. power swivels were typically used in workovers only. These operations drilled 75. casing. the first modular pipe-racking system was installed. Racking systems are another part of the rig floor automation development. Paul Scott in Michigan developed the first hydraulic power swivel and hoist.23 In the early 1970’s.1. In 1974. These systems have reduced the need of a driller’s proficiency in computer programming. These slips could be easily changed and were full opening. An electric rotary was placed on top of these hydraulic cylinders riding up and down. National Supply Company built a rotary table that integrated power slips into the design. a Sedco drillship had the first Western Gear horizontal pipe racking system. it was known as a power swivel (or a power sub). 6 Now. there is no evidence that it was actually used in the field. The latest iron roughnecks have included remotely operated mud buckets. With the introduction of flash memory (impervious to vibration damage) and of simple programming techniques. and torque wrench in a moveable mount. The PS-200 model built in 1958 was the follow on design that is the basis of more modern designs. The slip operator had a foot pedal that controlled the opening and closing of the slips. spinning chains. power swivels were in use in the late 1950’s. Previous to this time. 20 Automating the Entire Rig The first plans to put an entirely automatic drilling rig together were in the late 1940’s. In 1945. but also can maintain rate-of-penetration. It had a 1. 6 However. the movement of pipe could be preset to various locations without the constant pipe positioning with the joystick. 3. As will be noted. By 1956.2. other hydraulically operated power swivels were in use on the Shell’s Eureka core ship and the Glomar Challenger. back before mid-1980.2 The first attempts at mechanizing the rig floor involved using chain tongs. By 1996.2. In 1975. a Varco electric power swivel was designed and placed on two SEDCO jackup rigs. 13. the first semi-submersible rigs included a mechanical racking system.). it was impossible to solve in the field.8 A rotary rig with hydraulic lifts rather than a mast was shown at the 1954 Tulsa Oil Show. cleaning and doping system. taking over for cable tools in the Michigan basin. it has to be either set back or laid down. the systems in use not only can control weight-onbit. once the drill string is unscrewed. drag and torque measurements. This made sense . constant hydraulic pressure. Varco introduced a similar set of power slips in 1950. the top drive unit is ubiquitous offshore and is infiltrating onshore rigs in greater numbers. and breakout tongs. etc. These systems are also capable of handling specific operations ranging from automated tripping and reaming. By 1981. rather like a top drive. 23 Now. Since that time. Plans and drawings were completed. And if anything went wrong. and comfortable chairs in a climate controlled doghouse.6 cm) to 7 7/8 inch (20 cm) holes in North Louisiana. but.3. What made this unit so successful was the integration of pipe handling equipment to make and break connections built into the power swivel system. pump start.e. In the early 1960’s. In 1993. This was difficult at best.3 What have made pipe racking systems viable are computer controllers. continuous bit drill-off testing. spinner. All new offshore drilling vessels have incorporated rig mechanization and remotely controlled pipe handling systems. 21 Automating the Rotary System Another invention that helped in the automation of drilling systems is the top drive.

a controller compares measured cement density leaving the mixer to the desired density and adds or removes water and/or cement.000 feet (3. There are some in the business that feel humans will always have the upper hand in all rig operations. this automation is what is called. especially on rig floors Reduce the number of people on the rig floor and on the rig Be able to continue operating in harsh weather conditions Improve drilling rate-of-penetration Become more time efficient for drilling operations such as tripping Add precision to potentially complex drilling operations Make the rig smaller to weigh less and reduce environmental footprint Be able to mobilize and demobilize the rig faster Potentially have remote operations And the number one motive. A hydraulic chuck was used to make and break connections with an electronic-hydraulic slip. flow rate. a mud mixing system by IMCO services was developed and implemented on the No. In 2004. However.14 Cementing operations have been enhanced by automation. examples of the process include the Helmerich and Paine’s Flex series of rigs and Nabors’ PACE rigs.10 As noted in the above article however. None-the-less. Recirculating cement mixers are an example of this trend. This trend has been accelerating. the drilling industry has been pushing to mechanize and automate drilling operations. NM. needed onsite maintenance and had to change bits manually. The rig had a hydraulic power package. the rig had a remote-controlled. The mud system monitored the mud weight going in the hole and automatically added barite as needed to maintain a given weight. one with the power pack and one with the mast that could be slanted to 30 degrees from vertical. Schlumberger and M/D Totco demonstrated that they could remotely control a drilling operation. With a recirculating system. This rig consisted of two trailers. This rig was also used in Michigan. and PWD systems have continually increased the amount of real-time downhole data available to the surface. It started with Leschot’s auto-drill feed mechanism in the early 1860’s.6 m) with racks and a total weight of 300. the automation is instigated locally. “local”.4 cm) drill pipe to 13. well depth record holder located in Oklahoma. adjusts pump rate. The automation process has continued with the various rig equipment beginning to “talk” with each other in concert. In the mid1990’s. backup tongs. That is. especially in the offshore drilling arena.4 Another automatic rig was outlined in a May 1970 World Oil magazine article. a former U.S. LWD. This allows for the precise cement density to be pumped downhole. Others feel that full rig automation may help with upcoming personnel . and can recirculate the slurry back to the mixer until the numbers match. This information has allowed more direct control of trajectories into optimal areas of the reservoir. Bandera Drilling built an automated drill rig designed to handle 4-1/2 inch (11. trackmounted. The rig was designed to be crewed with two men and to be able to drill shallow holes. From that small beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. rotary steerable systems were developed. and regulatory agencies. The design criteria also included a small footprint of 35 foot (10. the first drillships included a pipe racking system and used power swivel and power subs. either in the doghouse or the rig floor. service companies. From Schlumberger’s Cambridge Research Center in England. It had hydraulic power tongs.000 lb (136. to reduce drilling costs These are some of the various motives that drive many operators. The rig was designed for completed automated trips that were controlled from a van 40 feet (12. The inclusion of robust computers has advanced the science of rig automation. especially with the introduction of computers to the rig. This rig was designed for the US Atomic Energy Commission for post-explosion penetration and sampling of the chimneys developed from underground nuclear explosions.8 m) tower. There was a transfer arm that would rotate vertical pipe to horizontal and would place the pipe in a storage bin and vice-versa. rotary speed) at the Cameron Test Facility in Texas. rotary steerable systems have evolved into machines that can guide themselves. Since the mid-1970. these were attempts at developing the fully automated drill rig. in various trajectories. The hydraulic system was powered by five 350 hp (261 kW) diesel engines powering a like number of 325 hp (242 kW) hydraulic pumps. power swivel. MWD. the forerunner of the top drive.3 111125 Other Areas of Drilling Automation Although this paper is concentrated on the automation of drilling operations and the rig floor. they commanded rig functions (such as WOB. Onshore. It had a hydraulic “drill head” that could lift and lower by 35 feet on a 42 foot (12. The process continues with today’s rigs becoming more automated. the SPE held an automation symposium in Hobbs.3 With the advent of satellite communications. and. and pipe-handling equipment along with pneumatic air slips. In the early 1950’s. South Texas.3 Conclusions The evolution of mechanization and automation in drilling has been a long process. The primary motives are to: • • • • • • • • • • Increase rig safety.4 for offshore operations.3 In 1966.7 m) by 48 foot (14.000 kg). and North Louisiana for petroleum related activities. The hoist was powered by hydraulics. other areas have been mechanized and automated. People were still needed on the floor. the time has come for not only remote monitoring but even the possibility of remote control.960 m). For example.17 Another drilling aspect recently to become semiautonomous is the bottom hole assembly. with human direction.2 m) away from the floor. contractors. Since then. One paper presented was the semi-automatic drilling rig. 1 Bertha Rogers well. the rig did not have the capability to observe and react to kicks.

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