Robert Howard

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Robert Howard
Robert E. Howard headshot.png

Bob Howard was honored with the Reginald Fessenden Award for his original development of and subsequent improvements to the first commercial 3-D seismic horizon event picker, which is named ZAP. Event picking in 3-D data volumes was a formidable problem for seismic interpreters in the 1980s, and the lack of effective visualization tools made consistent horizon picking and pick verification very difficult. Bob’s early work at Geophysical Service Inc. and subsequent efforts at Landmark Graphics provided the first truly practical solution to this problem. The development of ZAP overcame a critical barrier to the widespread adoption of the 3-D seismic method for hydrocarbon exploration and reservoir studies. Bob’s invention has a daily impact on thousands of geophysicists worldwide and on the success of many wells.

Biography Citation for the Reginald Fessenden Award

Contributed by Susie Mastoris Peebler

Not long ago, a year was considered a reasonable period to interpret a 3-D seismic survey. Today, a geophysicist can easily map one or more horizons in an afternoon. In Western Canada, for example, geophysicists can map (or should I say “ZAP”?) a horizon over an unfaulted reef in 12 seconds flat.

Thanks to Bob Howard, geophysicists have been liberated from the time consuming, monotonous task of line-by-line seismic interpretation. Using a simple region-growing algorithm, an interpreter can feed Bob’s software program, ZAP, as little as a single input “seed,” which the program then “grows” outwardly, interpreting adjacent traces based on sensitivity criteria set by the interpreter. For savvy geophysicists, ZAP goes beyond mere structural interpretation—it is a tool to gain greater understanding of the geology within a 3-D survey. By studying how ZAP reacts to different sensitivity settings, interpreters can detect subtle, yet potentially critical boundaries within a reservoir such as faults or pinchouts.

Quick to smile, yet intense and focused, Bob Howard is either all business or all play, with no wasted effort inbetween. An encounter with Bob is not easily forgotten— from his high-energy nature, you sense that Bob is on a mission to aggressively ensure the success of his product. Before designing ZAP, Bob’s innate tendencies to collaborate closely with end users sent him off on several world tours. To understand their challenges first hand, he sat side-by-side with interpreters working in a variety of geologic settings, from heavily fractured reservoirs in the North Sea to subtle reef plays in the Permian Basin. From these experiences, he designed the oil industry’s first true 3-D autotracker, flexible enough to succeed on 3-D data sets worldwide. Released first in 1989, ZAP quickly became an industry household name and the standard by which all others were measured.

Soon after, Bob incorporated computer advancements in memory allocation to speed up his program by a factor of 100. Turbo ZAP, introduced in 1990, let geophysicists interpret up to “100 000 traces per minute.” Bob updated his software each year, culminating in his latest 2000 release, which includes an even more rigorous setting for autotracking horizons in particularly noisy data. Always innovating, Bob next turned to automated fault interpretation. Using a similar concept to ZAP, an interpreter can input a few “seed” fault segments and let Bob’s FZAP algorithm automatically track obvious fault cuts throughout the survey. Now, he’s incorporating a variety of attribute-based maps to further guide his automated fault interpretation.

Bob, a 1982 graduate from University of Texas at El Paso, has spent his entire career around workstation technology. He was employed first by GSI in 1982 and joined BP in 1986 before landing at Landmark in 1988. He has since become one of Landmark’s most respected and beloved software developers. Bob’s impact on the commercial success of Landmark can be measured in multimillions of dollars. Bob Peebler, former CEO of Landmark Graphics remarked, “In the early 1990s, ZAP provided Landmark with a key competitive advantage. It allowed us to gain critical market share at a time when workstation technology was just beginning to gain widespread acceptance.”

From an interpreter’s perspective, Bob is a different type of hero. He has impacted the oil industry by successfully elevating the role of a geophysicist. By automating the mundane, yet critical task of basic structural interpretation, Bob’s innovations freed interpreters to tackle more difficult, higher-value tasks such as resolving depth-imaging problems, evaluating reservoir risk, or better understanding the rock physics of a reservoir. Don’t count Bob out to solve these problems too.