UT program uses oil drilling data to make US oil production more efficient

Jennifer Liu

UT’s Rig Automation and Performance in Drilling consortium is taking on the Herculean task of making the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer. 

The consortium is an industry affiliates program, meaning that companies pay an annual fee to have UT-Austin researchers analyze their data and solve problems. Members include big industry names such as ConocoPhillips, Hess and National Oilwell Varco.

These companies provide drilling data to RAPID, and students work to analyze that data to optimize these companies’ operations.  

Eric van Oort, RAPID’s director, joined UT as a petroleum engineering professor in 2012, which is when he had the initial idea to get these data sets from operators and analyze them. It took two years before companies were willing to start sharing data with the University, van Oort said. 

“We had the infrastructure in place to do the data analysis, we just didn’t have the data,” Van Oort said. “I really have to give a shout-out to ConocoPhillips. They were really the first company that was willing to trust us with their data.”

Now RAPID gets data from around half a dozen companies. Van Oort said that as the companies see that they’re getting real value from the data analysis, they’re volunteering more and more data to the researchers.

“(Essentially), we tell the companies what technologies we think would be helpful, and they give us feedback,” mechanical engineering professor Mitchell Pryor said.

Pryor oversees automation, mechanization and system control for RAPID. 

“It’s a great way to get those companies together in the room,” Pryor added. “That’s super important, because while they’re all competitors, they also all realize that, if their piece of machinery is going to work with someone else’s, people are going to want to be able to use that data together and develop industry standards.”

Automation is arguably one of the most important factors in the push for the U.S. to reach the number one spot on the world stage, according to Pryor.

“(Automation) is coming. You see bits and pieces of it everywhere,” van Oort said. 

Autonomous control systems and fully automated rigs are becoming more common, but they’re not yet commonplace, van Oort said.

There are many benefits to automation, including optimization, consistency and disaster prevention, but the primary benefit is improved safety, said Pradeep Ashok, a senior petroleum engineering research scientist.

“The oil rig is not really a good environment for somebody to be in,” Ashok said. “By using automation, we can take people out of harm’s way. That’s primary.”

Another benefit is the shift of human jobs from areas like rig inspection to more advanced work, such as data analysis and control system design. By getting robots to do the drudgery, humans can focus on responding to actual events, Pryor said. RAPID has even deployed robots to perform inspections at a refinery in Perth, Australia.

“We want people to do the interesting parts of their jobs, and let the robots do the boring parts,” Pryor said. 

RAPID is also unique in that it trains undergraduate students, giving them opportunities to get hands-on experience with real industry data. 

“I think I’m most proud of that,” van Oort said. “Giving our students different skill sets, learning in a different, and I think better, way, and being able to take those skills and get high-paying jobs in industry.”

Student development and mentoring is one of RAPID’s greatest accomplishments, van Oort said. The program has trained around 30 graduate students and more than 40 undergraduate students to date. Working with students is van Oort’s favorite part of the job.

“A lot of my friends just can’t wait to retire. They could tell you to the date, when it is they want to retire. But if I could keep going like this, I would never retire. It’s just too much fun!” van Oort said. “I would recommend it to anybody. Life is simply just too short to waste it on stuff you don’t wanna do.”