Drillbotics Teaches Hands-Free Drilling Through Hands-On Engineering


Authors: Shashi Talya and Fred Florence, Drillbotics Subcommittee, DSATS

October saw the launch of another annual challenge for the Drillbotics drilling automation competition. What began in 2015 as a project to design, build, and operate a miniature rig that drilled unknown formations autonomously has expanded into the digital world. In 2020, 31 teams from 12 countries and four continents competed in two categories, including one to model a full-scale rig drilling a virtual directional well.

2020 LSU Team1 Group A Video

This year, the competition maintained the same format with only minor adjustments. The winning team will present a paper about their project at the SPE/IADC Drilling Conference in March 2022.

What makes this project so special for the hardworking team members?

First, this research project requires an understanding of engineering principles behind the rig and its control system. Whether the teams’ rigs are physical or virtual, students must learn how the drilling machinery functions and how the surface actions affect the drillstring and the bit/rock interaction.

Second, teams must grasp the physics of drilling seen on both full-scale and miniature rigs. The challenge intentionally uses pipe that is subject to buckling so that teams must adapt their drilling parameters as they encounter different formations or other dysfunctions. The requirement for downhole tools and sensors opens new questions about design and cost trade-offs.

Third, team members from different backgrounds and with various skill levels must adapt to a schedule while dealing with supply chain disruptions such as those encountered during the pandemic. Only multi-disciplinary teams are successful.

Finally, teams often create innovative solutions that lead to patents even before team members graduate. Industry professionals recognize that Drillbotics students have a deeper understanding of drilling and working as a team, and that experience often affects hiring decisions.

Drillbotics is an event organized by the SPE Drilling Systems Automation Technical Section (DSATS). It now encompasses members from five of SPE’s technical sections: Wellbore Positioning Technical Section, also knows as ISCWSA, lead us in directional drilling, and Drilling Uncertainty Prediction and Digital Energy technical sections joined the competition that now includes issues related to measurements and data handling. This year, Human Factors Technical Section helped us teach how to design systems that keep the human in the loop, which is especially important on full-scale operations. The industry experts from each of these technical sections shared their knowledge with the students to provide education that was years ahead of most textbooks.

What do students and professors think about the competition?

Mohammed Anis Boumaza, Université Kasdi Merbah Ouargla, Algeria: “Drillbotics was a real school for us and a unique opportunity to grow professionally and personally. It was a fun ride for all of us in these past 3 years, and we hope we can stay in touch on future occasions. We hope that the next generation from our SPE Student Chapter can make it happen in the upcoming editions.”

Felix Odrebett, Clausthal University of Technology: "I had the privilege of leading my university’s Drillbotics team for 2 consecutive years. This experience has not only taught me to work on a diverse team but also to creatively solve engineering problems and understand the interconnection among parts of a technical system. It was a great addition to my normal curriculum in my petroleum engineering studies. The workload and complexity of the task is immense and sometimes even overwhelming, but the benefits of applying theoretical skills on a practical problem are huge. I can highly recommend the program to any engineering student."

Enrique Z. Losoya, Drillbotics 2017 Winner, Texas A&M: “Drillbotics taught me to be more collaborative and showed me the value of effective communication, commitment, and having motivated individuals working towards the most critical objectives. We realized the need to keep our team focused on particular aspects of the project while respecting and encouraging each member’s self-discipline with work boundaries. This led to significant strides in everyone's progress and was among the many lessons that Drillbotics teaches young professionals.”

Luis Saavedra, University of Stavanger: “Being involved in the Drillbotics virtual rig competition this year was a challenge that gave a massive boost to my career. The competition was beneficial for understanding where the drilling industry is going for the next few years. Moreover, the DSATS did an excellent job by adapting the physical lab-rig competition to a virtual rig competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The models and algorithms developed for this project helped me to construct a new approach to automatize the trajectory control in a directional drilling.

Sam Noynaert, associate professor, Texas A&M: “The students really enjoy getting to show off their work and having industry judges. The nice thing about the judges who came this year and in years past is that they provided feedback not only on the current design but also feedback that essentially amounts to suggestions for next year, which is something the students really appreciate.”

Drillbotics is looking for young professionals to join our team as judges and organizers. You can make a difference steering the future of this exciting program while witnessing the innovative thinking of multidisciplinary student teams. Visit the schools in person or virtually. Work with industry professionals to extend your professional network. Share your knowledge with student teams about new developments from operators, contractors, and service companies where you work. Reach out by sending an email to

Shashi Talya (Halliburton) is the Drillbotics subcommittee chair and Fred Florence (Rig Operations LLC) is the Drillbotics subcommittee co-chair.

[The article was sourced from the authors by TWA content creator Bruno S. Rivas.]