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Team from WVU selected for international drilling competition

Zach Cox.

Zach Cox.

Students at West Virginia University have been very successful as of late at excelling in national robotics competitions. While those teams were made up of students from computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, a new team made up mostly of petroleum and natural gas engineering students hopes to make their mark on the competition stage.


Sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Drillbotics challenges teams to test their ability to create a miniature robotic drilling rig inside a laboratory environment. The rig must then be able to drill a multi-rock layered sample with the fastest, straightest hole in the most energy- and cost-efficient manner.

Ten teams submitted proposals for the 2016 competition, with only five selected to advance to the final round. Joining WVU are teams from Colorado School of Mines, Texas AM University, University of Oklahoma and University of Texas. Oklahoma is the defending champion.

The team of five students from WVU include PNGE doctoral candidate Tawfik Elshehabi (Suez, Egypt); master’s students Zachary Cox (Hewett) and Cody Smith (Pataskala, Ohio); Gbolahan “Bugzy” Idowu (Ogun State, Nigeria), a master’s candidate in mechanical engineering; and Rachel Richards (Wellsburg), an undergraduate majoring in PNGE and geology. Advising the team is PNGE Associate Professor Ilkin Bilgesu, with Cox serving as student lead.

For Cox, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, the competition is also a chance for him to use what he learned as an undergraduate into solving a real-world problem that combines his current field of study.

The rig design is broken down into three parts: simulation, assembly and system integration.

“This includes the full model to be created and validated with CAD software, all parts to be ordered and constructed and the controller and sensors to be connected and programmed,” Cox said. “While these three parts require input from several different engineering fields, the control scheme, sensor selection and programming necessitate the coordination of nearly all relevant engineering fields.”

When building the team, Cox said they looked for interested students across various disciplines who were motivated, showed exceptional knowledge in their field and who had success on short deadline project.

“Applicable skills were sought after, such as experience with machining materials, mechatronics and preparation and design of drilling fluids; an emphasis was placed on teamwork and a broad skillset that could directly benefit the project.

“The electrical calculations are necessary to wire the system and use the appropriate connections and circuits and the mechanical simulation must be done to avoid critical conditions that will affect the drilling,” he continued. “Drilling parameters and material classification allow for optimal performance and the programming relies on this and must issue and read commands from the various components. Due to these factors, and the need for interdisciplinary cooperation, the control and programming of the rig will be the most difficult challenge for our team.”

“This is a good learning process and research experience for our students,” said Bilgesu. “We want to show other schools that we are knowledgeable and capable of conducting this kind of innovative research.”

The biggest test, according to Bilgesu, comes from the unknown.

“The most difficult part of the competition is the testing process, since we do not have any information about the sample to be tested,” he said. “We are hoping to complete the drilling model early to allow us time to test and verify that it is working as designed prior to the competition.”

Unlike other competitions where the teams travel to a central site to compete, Drillbotics judges will travel to each participating school in late April with the sample to be tested. The judges will test the equipment, videotape the event and announce a winner after all sites have been judged.

The winning team will be provided funding to travel to the next SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition to present a technical paper about their solution and their work.



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