The use of drilling automation is accelerating, mostly in the area of rate of penetration (ROP) enhancement. Autonomous directional drilling is now a high focus area for automating drilling operations. The potential impact is immense because 93% of the active rigs in the US are drilling directional or horizontal wells. The 2018–2019 Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS)‐led international Drillbotics® Student Competition includes automated directional drilling. In this paper, we discuss the detailed design of the winning team. We present the surface equipment, downhole tools, data and control systems, and lessons learned.

SPE DSATS organizes the annual Drillbotics competition for university teams to design and develop laboratory‐scale drilling rigs. The competition requires each team to create unique downhole sensors to allow automated navigation to drill a directional hole. Student teams have developed new rig configurations to enable several steering methods that include a rotary steering system and small‐scale downhole motors with a bent‐sub. The most significant challenge was creating a functional downhole motor to fit within a 1.25‐in. (3.18 cm) diameter wellbore. Besides technical issues, teams must demonstrate what they have learned about bit‐rock interaction and the physics of steering. In addition, they must deal with budgets and funding, procurement and delivery delays, and overall project management. This required an integrated multidisciplinary approach and a major redesign of the rig components.

The University of Oklahoma (OU) team made significant changes to its existing rig to drill directional holes. The design change was introduced to optimize the performance of the bottomhole assembly (BHA) and allow directional drilling. The criteria for selecting the BHA was hole size, BHA dynamics, a favorable condition for downhole sensors, precise control of drilling parameters, rig mobility, safety, time constraints, and economic practicality. The result is an autonomous drilling rig that drills a deviated hole toward a defined target through a 2 × 2 × 1‐ft (60.96 × 60.96 × 30.48 cm) sandstone block (i.e., rock sample) without human intervention. The rig currently uses a combination of discrete and dynamic modeling from experimentally determined control parameters and closed‐loop feedback for well‐trajectory control.

The novelty of our winning design is in the use of a small‐scale cable‐driven downhole motor with a bent‐sub and quick‐connect‐type swivel system. This is intended to replicate the action of a mud motor within the limits of the borehole diameter. In this paper, we present details of the rig components, their specifications, and the problems faced during the design, development, and testing. We demonstrate how a laboratory‐scale rig can be used to study drilling dysfunctions and challenges. Building a downhole tool to withstand vibrations, water intrusion, magnetic interference, and electromagnetic noise are common difficulties faced by major equipment manufacturers.

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