With the launch of the world’s first digital drilling vessel, GE and Noble Drilling are charting a new course for the sector
Around a year ago, UK-headquartered offshore driller Noble signed a landmark pact with GE to create a next-generation data system for its rigs. Aptly named the “Digital Rig” solution, the goal was to use the numerous streams of information coming out of a modern drillship to make management of the asset more efficient. Specifically, Noble wanted to achieve a 20% reduction in repair and maintenance costs across the targeted equipment on participating pilot rigs, as well as additional production and process efficiency improvements.
Less than 12 months on, February 2018 saw the partners announce the launch of the first Digital Rig, deployed on the Noble Globetrotter I drillship. Touted as “the world’s first digital drilling vessel”, Globetrotter I illustrates a wider trend in the offshore contracting industry, as companies finally get to grips with the proactive application of data, beyond simple monitoring and recording for reactive analysis.
Using GE’s Predix platform, data from the Globetrotter I is collected through individual sensors and control systems, and partly processed via a mini data centre on the vessel – a technique known as edge processing – before it is transmitted to a GE cloud system for processing and predictive analytics. The system is connected to all targeted control systems, including drilling controls, power management systems and the dynamic positioning system (DPS), giving the operator (and a host of onshore experts) a complete top-down view of the asset.
That data can be compared with a virtual replica of the rig – known as a digital twin – to detect anomalies and to correct any problems or breakdowns before they occur. Predicting potential failures in advance should allow Noble to avoid breakdowns or unplanned equipment repairs while at sea, lost revenues from which can run from US$80,000 to US$465,000 per day, Noble’s senior vice president for operations, Bernie Wolford, has said.
Speaking with InnovOil, GE’s Marine Solutions vice president of digital products, Krishna Uppuluri, explained the process of collaboration which led to the development of the system. Noble’s main focus in adopting digitalisation, he said, was to achieve consistency of operation, or “How [to] achieve minimal performance variance across the ships, crews and rigs, almost turning drilling as an art into drilling as a science,” he explained. “If they are able to systematise the way they drill, it doesn’t matter which region or what type of well, then they achieve operations predictability.”
“Operationally,” he added, “It’s about ensuring that you don’t have unplanned downtime caused by an inexperienced crew doing things wrong compared with an experienced crew, or delaying a project because a crew or a shift takes longer than others.”
In addition, as well as the savings in opex from reducing maintenance costs and unplanned disruptions, Uppuluri said that Noble was aware of the potential of the technology as a differentiating feature in the drilling market, and that it gave the company a competitive advantage when dealing with both customers and its competition.
The challenge here is that drillers are not suffering from a dearth of data, but lack methods of applying it proactively. Indeed, the problem is well summarised by Noble maintenance manager Jason McMullen, who remarked: “We’ve seen data, we’ve had data, we’ve just never captured the data.” Uppuluri concurred with the sentiment, noting: “If you look at all of the marine industry, particularly in drilling, the data has existed in whatever form and whatever fidelity for a few years already. But the data was used primarily for monitoring and diagnostics when something went wrong, to troubleshoot what went wrong.” Much of GE’s work with Noble therefore focused on deciding what data to use, and how it could be applied proactively to enhance decision-making.
This involved identifying and creating new data tags as needed, but also finding out where data was missing. In many cases the necessary sensors were already present in the equipment, but the data was not being collected or used. GE therefore set about making much more of these streams visible and accessible to users via a dashboard that contained actionable insights, rather than just recorded actions. “You’re transforming the decisions taken today from ‘gut-feel’ to data-driven decisions,” he added.
One example of this is slip-to-slip time in tripping. This is a key drilling efficiency metric which is typically logged manually in a Daily Operations Report (DOR). Digital Rig transforms this approach. Data signals from the equipment are collected to give an automatic quantification of slip-to-slip metric. Tool-pusher dashboards display these metrics in real time and enable a further drill-down of details for quick, corrective actions. This increases efficiency and reduces performance variance across shifts, crews and rigs.
In establishing these dashboards, however, Uppuluri cautioned that digital providers should strive to work in tandem with the operational needs of their clients, and not the other way around: “If you fit the digital system into a stakeholders’ daily work and enhance the decisions they already make, then it’s easy for them to embrace it. But if you get carried away with your own solutions and try to dictate a completely new way of working for the stakeholder, that’s when you get pushback,” he added. It is a sound point given that many operators are being told digitalisation is the way forward, often before the practical implications have been explored.
Clearly, Noble is confident of the impact Digital Rig can have on its bottom line. The 20% reduction in maintenance cost aligns broadly with savings GE says it has seen across other industries, typically in the region of 15-25%, Uppuluri noted.
Yet the growth of technologies like Digital Rig will also begin to reshape the wider drilling industry and the supply chain. The current boundaries – from shipbuilders to drilling contractors to end-customers such as E&P companies – are likely to be redrawn as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and shipbuilders look to incorporate digital technologies from the ground up. “At the moment drilling contractors are digitalising their existing rigs after the fact, they are transforming [conventional] rigs into digital rigs,” Uppuluri explained. “But the yards are saying: ‘What if I can build you a digital rig and give you a head start, in terms of cabling, communications etc.? Everything that’s done today as a digital retrofit could be built ground-up with plug-and-play digital capability across the entire ship.”
This approach not only opens up new revenue opportunities for rig builders, but could lower costs for the squeezed drillers and rig operators in the middle. He likens the change to that of industries such as consumer electronics, where low up-front payments for gadgets such as mobile phones are offset by other revenue streams further down the chain, such as insurance or data plans. “Today maintenance is [handled] by drilling contractors,” he explained, “But what if the yards can put enough sensors and analytics in, can they take on some of the maintenance burden to make it a win-win for them and for drilling contractors? That’s a disruptive possibility.”
Even with the present pressures on day rates and a wider consolidation, Uppuluri is bullish on the upside of digitalising existing assets. The same efficiencies sought by Noble are likely to be brought into focus across the market, and those who can harness the power of data-to-decisions to establish a competitive advantage. “Some of the contractors will pull away as new Tier-1 drilling contractors who have achieved new efficiencies, new predictability and a lower opex,” he suggested. “They will start re-defining a different kind of engagement with oil companies and the rest of the drillers will have to play catch-up.”
For now, GE’s work with Noble is ongoing. Following the launch of Digital Rig on Globetrotter I, the partnership agreement calls for the system to be deployed on three more drilling rigs, as part of a pilot programme. The remaining three targeted vessels are on schedule for operational optimisation early this year, GE says. Beyond that, Noble has said that it may seek to expand the system across its entire fleet.
The driller is confident in its importance for the company over the long term, and as a stepping stone to other transformative technologies. “The data backbone paves the way towards autonomous drilling, and digital technology is facilitating a new era of drilling and asset performance improvements that are unprecedented,” Noble’s senior vice president of operations Bernie Wolford commented in February.
Uppuluri, meanwhile, is sure that the impact of this “leapfrog” transformation will be felt even in the short term: “If you upgrade each piece of equipment, it’s a lot of work, you have to re-certify each piece and retrain people etc. But given all the equipment on a rig as-is, if you can take data from them and make everybody more productive, that’s such a quick way of transforming your operations. That’s the excitement of digital rigs…that’s how the competitive landscape will be redefined.”