Production systems moving subsea and downhole

Offshore oil and gas exploration and development operations are the earthly equivalent of deep space exploration. The oceans are equally hostile and remote. All supplies and equipment must be transported to sites far offshore. Contingency planning must account for many hazards, and built-in redundancies in deeper depths must rely on intervention by remotely controlled devices.

Fiber optics

Smart downhole tools will require instructions from both onboard computers and from human handlers offsite. Fiber optic cables provide a way to send instructions to many different smart tools on a single glass fiber, just by altering the frequency (color) of light employed.

The fiber optic cable will become a "spinal cord" for the well, relaying directed instructions as well as passively monitoring the status and condition of the wellbore. Automated pre-programmed responses, similar to the human body's autonomic reflex system, will deal with expected problems before they become a major danger.

Alerts will be sent by light cable to the surface telemetry system, which will relay data and conditions by satellite to the field control operation onshore. Additional instructions can then be sent to the in-bore tools to effect repairs.

Mankind has achieved similar things before, most recently in the NASA Mars Sojourner space programs. Unmanned probes could become an operational norm for the next century.

Artificial intelligence

Smart production systems will need to be able to respond to changing conditions in the well. To do this, the collective wisdom of production engineers will be encoded into software, artificial intelligence (AI), that can take the monitoring data from sensors within the wellbore and respond in necessary ways to control pressures or modify treatment programs.

The petroleum industry AI system of the future will have the ability to learn and adjust to the specific characteristic of unique production flows. In addition, the system will control all the tool systems operating in the well.

Robotic devices

The wellbore designed around such technologies as the Downhole Factory will be larger than that for conventional oil wells, at least the upper sections. Lateral holes will be drilled as storage bays for tools and supplies, keeping them out of the way until they are needed.

These active elements within the wellbore will be robotic devices that can adjust or tune the hydrocones and other specialized production equipment in the factory. They will be able to move freely within the borehole and will receive instruction by fiber optic cable and internal telemetry. The systems will be equipped with sonar/radar imaging systems to provide visual data to distant human field controllers.

The artificial intelligence (AI) stored in the "brain" of the well will instruct these devices as to their tasks. At first, the devices will be task specific, similar to today's dedicated electo-mechanical systems. As these robotic tool systems evolve a more general programmable tool, they will be able to handle multiple tasks.

Copyright 1998 Oil & Gas Journal. All Rights Reserved.

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