What Does the Future of Drilling Look Like?
I have watched a lot of changes in the years I have been around the drilling industry, both in the water well business and the oilfield. When I was a kid, most of the well drilling was done with cable tool rigs. There were a few rotaries around, but we looked askance at those “new-fangled” rigs, wondering how they could possibly drill a good well in half a day, and do any quality work. They were obviously drilling so fast that they probably missed the water, just to make footage! The error of our ways was made obvious when economic reality set in. People no longer wanted to get on a six-month waiting list when they could have a well by tomorrow night. And even though those rigs were expensive, they paid for themselves many times over. Don’t get me wrong: There are still plenty of places that a cable tool rig is the right rig to use, but the choices are vast now.
Originally, almost all rotary rigs were table drive. Drillers got used to them, and they worked great. Still do. Now, almost all rigs are tophead drive. This gives great control and fast drilling, but takes some getting used to for a rotary-table driller.
Since most of us are pretty set in our ways, change comes slowly, but usually for the better. For instance, we are now seeing very reliable variable-speed pumps that solve many system problems that have plagued us for years. I remember taking out the first five I installed for one reason or another. They didn’t start out very reliably, but they are getting better and cheaper every year.
Another thing that has been around for years, but is getting more common is the ability to locate water. Modern geoscience and computers have teamed up to reliably locate water in previously unheard of places, such as fractured formations. A location move of even 10 feet can make the difference between a “duster” and a good well. We can now locate those places before we drill. Customers like that for some reason.
If you look at the technology used in the water well industry, you will see that most of our technology trickles down from the oilfield. This is mostly because of the money. The big boys have R&D budgets that we can never match, but we can benefit from in time.
I see a couple things on the horizon that haven’t made it into the water well industry yet, but are coming — after a lot of cussing, and fits-and-starts. One is electric rigs. I think that, eventually, most pumps, compressors, draworks and tophead drives will be electric. One of the big advantages is efficiency over hydraulics. Less heat is wasted, translating to better fuel economy. Large oil coolers will be gone, making rigs lighter and more compact. Once we get used to working on them, maintenance will be easier and less frequent. No more clutch adjustment or replacement, and no more pollution from burst hydraulic hoses. Plus control of the drilling operation will be at the push of a button, or joystick, over a very broad range. Electric motors and control circuits are existing shelf items now. It’s just a matter of putting it all in one package. Imagine being able to mount a mud pump or compressor wherever you needed it, without having to line up drive shafts and clutches.
Another thing I see on the horizon is better instrumentation and electronics. With electric drive, all sorts of useful information becomes available. Torque, pump pressure, flow rate, penetration, depth and many other things can be graphed out, giving us a better view of the hole than we’ve ever had. On the new cyber-rigs, the driller sits in an air-conditioned cabin in a Barcalounger, working joysticks and touch screens, and knows more about the hole than I ever did hanging on a brake handle in the rain.
All this will lead to changes in our industry, but one goal remains the same: A productive hole for our customers, at a profit, of course. The new technology coming up will allow us to do our jobs faster and more efficiently, with a better outcome for all. When I was younger, I was once on a 16,000-foot hole. It took eight months and the customer was happy. Now, I see 20,000-foot holes drilled in 12 days. Shazam! This is due to technology and recent developments, and it will continue. The recent downturn in the oilfield has made drillers adjust how they do things. When they had $100 a barrel oil, they spent a lot of money on R&D. Now that oil is around $50 a barrel, they are putting their research to work, and still making money.
A lot of guys kid me about being a dinosaur while they turn-and-burn, until it’s time to come up with an idea that worked 30 years ago, and still does, and saves their bacon. I have done my best to keep up with the new technologies and changes, without forgetting how we got here. There are some things that can’t be improved on. Sledgehammers come to mind.
For more Wayne Nash columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/wayne.