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Xbox technology retrofitted to oil-drilling work

A team in Kendall Square uses robotic technology from the video game world to make installing drilling pipe faster, safer

Workers connected pipe on a drilling rig in Oman. Below,  Yinxiao Liu (foreground) and Shawn Murphy used robotic technology to do the same work in a building in Cambridge.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staffl

In Cambridge, Shawn Murphy watched piping being moved into place by a computer engineer using a joystick.

It is probably the only oil-drilling rig in Greater Boston, and it is in a very odd place: the 15th floor of a building in Kendall Square.

Just as unusual is the team that is running it. Although their employer is an oil company, the drilling team is mostly drawn from the aerospace industry, and led by an astrophysicist whose previous job was designing a lunar satellite.

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The energy giant Royal Dutch Shell launched its TechWorks lab to develop cheaper, faster, and safer ways to find oil and gas, and based it in Cambridge to tap the city’s vast reservoir of world-class scientific talent.

“This is the center of knowledge and technology of the world,” said the lab’s director, Shawn Murphy. “Why not be here?”

As for the aerospace background of the Shell lab employees, there is not much difference between probing the earth’s crust and exploring space, Murphy said.

“If you look at the oil industry,” Murphy said, “you want to make a safe, reliable system that goes into remote areas that are very hostile.”

The chief goal of the Shell TechWorks lab is to speed up the process of drilling for oil. For now, it is focused on one small, crucial link in that chain.

A rig typically drills 90 feet at a time, using three 30-foot sections of drilling pipe. As the pipe’s end is pushed down into the hole, a new section must be screwed into place. It is traditionally a hazardous process, as lengths of pipe weighing hundreds of pounds swing across the drill rig platform, threatening to clobber anyone in the way. Automating the process could speed it up and eliminate the need for human “roughnecks” to grapple with the pipes.

Already, there are machines called “iron roughnecks” that can screw pipes together. But lining up a fresh piece of pipe so it fits smoothly onto the previous one can still be a challenge. It is called “stabbing the pipe,” said Randy Mutch, vice president of wellsite technology at Ensign Energy Services, an oil-drilling company in Calgary, Alberta.

Royal DutchShell

Workers connected pipe on a drilling rig in Oman.

And it is generally done by a worker armed with a joystick. “There’s still a human in the loop who’s controlling the tools,” Mutch said. “It’s by eyeball.”

The Shell team is trying to remove people from the loop altogether, by using a concept borrowed from Kinect, the motion-control system developed by Microsoft Corp. for its Xbox 360 video game console. Just as Kinect’s camera technology tracks the location and movements of people playing a video game, the Shell team used Kinect gear from the local Best Buy to develop a robotic system to align the pipe.

The finished product will use more advanced “time of flight” cameras, which use infrared light pulses to calculate the distance between objects, such as oil pipes, with extreme precision. Several such cameras are mounted on the drilling platform and aimed at the point where two pipes are to be joined. The measurement is then used to automatically place the new pipe in exactly the right location to make the connection.

When perfected, the system should allow drillers to handle the entire process from a remote-control center, safe from any flying steel and with no need for eyeballs or joysticks.

“We get rid of the humans,” Murphy said. “You press a button and it just goes.”

It can take anywhere from three to 13 minutes to add more pipe on today’s rigs. Murphy said that his team’s robotic system will be able to add a length in three minutes — every time.

It should save money, too. Running an oil rig is expensive, as much as $1.9 million a day. Speeding up the addition of pipe by just five minutes, for example, would save Shell up to $6,600 every time it is done. And the system should be relatively cheap, because it relies on inexpensive video cameras and software.

The robotic rig in the Cambridge lab is testing Murphy’s pipefitting machine, while a full-scale version is being tried out at a Shell facility in the Dutch town of Rijswijk.

“It actually is working quite well,” said Murphy, consistently lining up the pipes within a millimeter of perfection.

Tony Pink, vice president of dynamic drilling solutions for National Oilwell Varco in Houston, said that automated drilling technology is already found on offshore drilling rigs, where conditions are hazardous and operating costs very high. But oil companies have resisted using it on land.

“It would make the rig a lot more expensive,” Pink said. “You might as well pay people to do it.”

But a low-cost alternative of the kind Shell is developing would interest Pink.

“If they can do it,” Pink said, “we would pretty sure partner with them to make it.”

Among the oil companies, Shell is actually late to Kendall Square.

The giant French drilling equipment company Schlumberger has had a Cambridge research center since 2007. Saudi Arabian Oil Co., which is also called Saudi Aramco, came to town last year.

Schlumberger declined to comment; Saudi Aramco did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Shell Techworks

Shell TechWorks engineer Leland Smith sets up a new sensor system on a test rig in Rijswijk, Netherlands.

Murphy, meanwhile, has a long history here, too.

He received an astrophysics degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and previously worked at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Kendall as head of science and technology for the space systems group. There, he helped develop the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, a 900-pound robotic probe. Launched in September, the probe successfully orbited the moon to collect information about its extremely thin atmosphere.

When a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that he have a chat with some of Shell’s oil people, Murphy was dismissive. But he changed his mind and was glad he did.

“I found out they’re actually quite amazing,” Murphy said. “After a while we said, ‘Why don’t we work on some projects together?’ ”

He expects the energy industry will continue to invest in Greater Boston, drawn by the region’s plentiful supply of sharp, unorthodox brainpower.

Technicians’ notes were written on an office window that overlooks the Charles River and the Boston skyline.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Technicians’ notes were written on an office window that overlooks the Charles River and the Boston skyline.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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