Rotary steerable drilling systems are highly automated with inclination and azimuthal hold modes. These systems require only sparse communication downlinks to hold to a well plan or to compensate for geological "drift". Mud pulse transmission is one of the most complex communications technologies in any industry, yet measurement-while-drilling (MWD) companies have developed reliable bi-directional telemetry systems. The focus here has been on pulse generation and sophisticated decoding systems, able to detect signals, automatically, at a very low signal-to-noise ratio.

Combining downhole automation and automatic mud pulse decoding with remote operations technologies delivers the technical-basis for unmanned MWD and directional drilling (DD) services. The infrastructure for unmanned services is a reliable surface communications network that connects the rig site with the remote operations center, and the realization that unmanned operations needs a new organizational structure for subject matter experts (SME's), in this case the MWD and DD engineers.

This paper describes the now mature unmanned MWD and DD services (remote operations) in the US Land arena. These unconventional wells can reach in excess of a mile a day (so-called, MAD wells) with record footage in excess of 9,000 feet in a single 24-hour period. It will also describe the SME structure to deliver remote operations, and the key-role SMEs play in realizing unmanned operations. For example, moving directional drillers from the wellsite and into operator offices greatly improves decision-making.

The paper will also examine the role of automation and digital technologies within this construct, especially how they will allow the unmanned model to migrate towards complex wells. Automated trajectory drilling systems, in which the rotary steerables can automatically correct for geologic drift, is the next step in downhole automation, soon to be followed by automated geosteering. Unmanned remote operations have only been around for a couple of years, but already operators are realizing efficiency and performance as they take advantage of a real-time digital infrastructure.

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