FEATURE-Walking, 'talking' drilling rigs aim to modernize fracking

Tue Apr 15, 2014 6:00am EDT
 
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By Ernest Scheyder

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania, April 15 (Reuters) - The backbreaking life of a roughneck, the iconic worker bees of oilfield drilling rigs, is getting a little easier.

Schramm Inc, which built the drilling rig that four years ago helped rescue 33 trapped Chilean copper miners, has designed a 500,000-pound rig for the oil and natural gas industry that can walk, rotate 360 degrees, be operated with a remote control, and load pipe automatically.

The T500XD rig's futuristic control room has touchscreens and joysticks, rather than the valves and dials on conventional rigs, appealing to a generation of oilfield workers raised on video games. More than 200 sensors monitor pneumatics, oil flow and myriad other processes, "talking" via satellite or Wi-Fi to Schramm's Pennsylvania headquarters and signaling any problems.

Riding the global boom in fracking - the practice of injecting sand, water and chemicals deep underground to release oil and gas - Schramm's latest rig, although pricey, allows producers to sharply reduce labor costs, the company says.

It's all part of what Schramm, controlled by private equity firm GenNx360, says is an attempt to make the process of drilling a new well safer and faster.

So far, selling the rig to the slow-to-change drilling industry has been a challenge, and the risk of technological theft looms over much of the energy sector. But executives say they are pushing forward regardless, and some analysts say the company could be an appealing acquisition target, especially if its new rigs start selling.

"We designed the rig to have lots of automation and to be simpler to run," said Ed Breiner, Schramm's president. "That means less fatigue and fewer injuries for oilfield workers," who often have 12-hour shifts.

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