Robots and college students. It sounds like a sci-fi story.

But it was an actual event that landed a team of University of Oklahoma engineering students first place at the annual Drillbotics® international competition.

The Drillbotics® competition showcases the OU Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering’s focus on innovation. It involves teams of university students designing and building a miniature 500-pound drilling rig that uses sensors and control algorithms to autonomously drill a rock sample.

“The University of Oklahoma continues to lead the way in preparing the next generation of petroleum engineers,” said Dean J. Mike Stice. “Students here have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are titans in their fields. They have multiple opportunities for experiential learning. This is just one example. They can step out of our industry-grade teaching labs and be at a rig site in a matter of minutes.”

The OU team, consisting of five undergraduate and graduate students from the Mewbourne School at the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, were among 11 teams from around the world whose placement in regional contests qualified them for the international competition. This is the fifth Drillbotics® competition and OU’s second international win.

Each September, teams receive the coming year’s competition parameters. This year they were tasked with performing directional drilling, a goal filled with both challenges and real-world applications.

“All of the oil that was easy to get out of the ground has been found and recovered,” said Emmanuel Akita, graduate student, and team lead.

In today’s energy industry, petroleum engineers are tasked with drilling wells and recovering oil from hard-to-reach places. Directional drilling allows them to steer a subsurface drill in multiple directions. This method helps contain the high cost of oil recovery.

Just as with actual rigs, the OU Drillbotics® rig is outfitted with a unique steering technique, which allows them to precisely control the trajectory of the wellbore from the surface. Students mastered a complicated array of electronics to ensure that controls, sensors, and rig mechanics were all properly communicating with each other. When problems arose, team members had to find a solution. With the theoretical understanding gained in the classroom, they branched out – digging through textbooks, talking to professors, and consulting experts.

“Personally, this is the best project I’ve worked on throughout my academic career,” said Akita. “For the course of a year, our small team worked together to find solutions and meet our goal.”

The Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering is no stranger to accolades, as its petroleum engineering programs are highly ranked. Students at the undergraduate and graduate level have unparalleled access to lab technology, including the National Oilwell Varco Drilling Simulator, one of the only drilling simulators housed at a university in the world.

This year, the Mewbourne School is celebrating its centennial anniversary. For the past 100 years, OU has been at the forefront of petroleum engineering education. The legacy continues with students like the 2018-2019 Drillbotics® team.

Photo courtesy of the University of Oklahoma.