In its first-ever attempt, a team of five students from West Virginia University captured top honors in Drillbotics, an international drilling competition designed to test teams’ ability to create a miniature robotic drilling rig inside a laboratory environment.

The team from WVU used every skill they had—plus a few they had to learn—to create the rig, which stood approximately seven-feet tall, weighed 300 pounds and took nearly six months to build, to successfully drill the 10.5-inch rock sample in a record time of 27 minutes.

Ten teams submitted proposals for the 2016 competition, with only five selected to advance to the final round. WVU bested teams from Colorado School of Mines, Texas A&M University, University of Texas and defending champion University of Oklahoma.

The team included petroleum and natural gas engineering 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 was PNGE Associate Professor Ilkin Bilgesu, with Cox serving as student lead.

“The team of students worked hard and were fully dedicated to this project,” said BIlgesu. “With their perseverance and the excellent leadership provided by Zach, they won against other well-established petroleum engineering schools who were also competing.”

“The first several times we sat down as a group for this competition we began critiquing and questioning what the teams had done last year,” said Cox. “One theme was using what was considered a best solution; however we wanted to ensure that our system could adapt and change as it drilled. There was also a strong focus within the team to build as complete a rig as was possible. This is why we had not only a circulations system but also a filtering system and emergency reserve.”

The team also didn’t want to rely on a computer to run the rig; they wanted it to run independently without any additional hardware or software.

“While a PC was used to receive the data from the rig, this was a one-way communication and all control was handled by the onboard systems,” Cox said.

From there, the team went to work, manufacturing the pieces needed to create the rig. And this is where the learning curve set in. First, they headed to the industrial engineering lab, where they learned to fabricate the bit subs, which connect the bit to the drill pipe. Then, they used 3D printers to design and print everything from stabilizers to motor mounts. They also had to teach themselves how to program the rig using an Intel Edison module and four Arduino Uno boards to delegate rig functions and run the algorithm. According to Cox, this method was chosen because several team members had used them before in mechanical engineering courses.

“For most of the construction, there was a strong emphasis for us to do everything we could ourselves,” Cox said. “This was primarily due to the experience we had and to save on cost. It also allowed us to go through many design iterations to find what worked best. This became a familiar event for us: try something that seemed like a good idea and then improve it as we went along. While there was always a plan on how to do things, this was nearly always adapted to suit our position better.”

The judges, Fred Florence, president of Rig Operations, LLC, of Austin, Texas, and Aaron Logan, vice president of engineering with Evolution Engineering, of Calgary, Alberta, were impressed by how the team made decisions based on a term the team called proportional cost.

“What seems to have drawn the most interest is our commitment to adaptability and proportional cost,” Cox said. “Proportional cost is simply our method of buying cheaper components for noncritical systems. This could be a cheaper, less accurate sensor or smaller hardware for the structure. This, in part, allowed us to use our budget for worst-case scenarios and changes to fix issues we had not foreseen.” The total cost of constructing the rig was $8,700.

When the competition was over Cox and his teammates agreed that the experience of creating something from the ground up was overwhelming but extremely satisfying.

“There are many crowning moments in a six-year college career, from finishing a capstone to your first publication and many others. However, this is one of the only events where we as students go from concept to design to performance to be evaluated by independent judges all while receiving the attention and support of the department, college and all the affiliated parties,” Cox said. “With that being said, I believe the team came together because this seemed like a unique and challenging competition we took particular interest in. There was also a desire to create something for the department to generate more interest among fellow students.”

“The opportunity to be a part of such a ground-breaking design project, was one I couldn’t pass up,” said Idowu. “Although my undergraduate studies were in petroleum engineering, I have never truly worked in this capacity. I was amazed with how easily I was able to grasp the theoretical concepts I struggled with during my undergraduate career.”

“On behalf of the entire Department, I couldn’t be more proud of this group of students,” said Samuel Ameri, department chair. “Winning this competition shows the world that WVU deserves its spot among the very best. We work hard each day to earn and keep this reputation, and these students are proof of what the scope and breadth of knowledge gained here provides. My heartfelt congratulations goes out to each one of them on this fantastic achievement.”

Financial support was provided by the Department of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

By virtue of winning, the team will be provided funding to travel to Dubai to the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition to present a technical paper about their solution and their work.