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Drilling involves a set of processes for breaking and removing rock to produce boreholes,
tunnels, and excavations. In general, the object of drilling is to reach a target in the subsurface.
The target may be a small feature at considerable depth, or increasingly particularly in petroleum
industry applications at substantial horizontal distances from the drilling site. The paramount
objectives of drilling are to reach the target safely in the shortest possible time and at the lowest
possible cost, with additional sampling and evaluation constraints dictated by the particular

The Drilling System

The principal elements of current drilling systems are shown in Figure 1. The drill head
comminutes rock at the end of the borehole. In most applications, the drill head is a drill bit that
breaks rock by mechanical or mechanical-hydraulic action. The rate of breakage is governed by
bit design, including the bit's effectiveness in breaking rock and resisting wear, and by rock type,
temperature, pressure, and operating procedure (the experience and aptitude of the driller can
have a considerable impact on how fast and effectively drilling proceeds). The drill is powered
either from the surface through a drive string or by a downhole motor.

Rock breakage by the bit is followed by transfer of rock fragments to the surface. In tunneling
applications, transport of waste material can involve elaborate mechanical systems; in petroleum
and geothermal drilling, fragmented rock is typically transported to the surface by drilling fluid
(mud) or air. The drilling fluid may provide power to drive the drill;
it also acts as a coolant for the cutters, a conditioner for stabilizing the borehole (i.e., preventing
borehole collapse and blowouts), and in some advanced applications, a medium for transmitting
information to the surface by pressure pulses.

In most drilling systems, there is little or no downhole sensing of rock or bit conditions, and
guidance systems, if present, are primitive. Although measurement-while-drilling and logging-
while-drilling technologies exist, in most cases target acquisition requires interruption of the
drilling process to insert special tools to obtain rock samples (core) or borehole measurements.
Sensing the condition of the drill bit or wellbore commonly amounts to nothing more than an
attempt to recognize the warning signs of incipient loss of function or catastrophic failure.

Key processes of the typical drilling system can be subdivided into two groups (Table 1). The
first group includes processes such as rock breakage, debris removal, and maintenance of
borehole stability. The second group includes processes such as drill bit sensing (e.g., monitoring
bit wear), rock properties sensing and evaluation, drill bit or drill string steering, and wellbore
damage sensing. Three factors make revolutionary advances in these processes possible and
perhaps even likely: (1) these areas of drilling technology are relatively undeveloped, and
therefore significant advances are possible; (2) these advances will be driven by the changing
nature of drilling targets (e.g., smaller, deeper, harder to detect); and (3) this development will be
facilitated by technological advances in related fields (e.g., computer science, microelectronics)
that can be readily adapted to drilling.

Smart Drilling Systems and the Systems Approach

The smart drilling system is a system capable of sensing and adapting to conditions around and
ahead of the drill bit to reach desired targets. This system may be guided from the surface, or it
may be self-guided, utilizing a remote guidance system that modifies the trajectory of the drill
when the parameters measured by the sensing system deviate from expectations.

TABLE 1 Key Elements of Drilling Systems and Areas of Possible Evolutionary and
Revolutionary Improvement



Rock breaking Key element in drilling process:Evolutionary

bottleneck to increased drilling rate

Debris removal Potential bottleneck, especially inEvolutionary


Borehole stabilization Discontinuous process Evolutionary

Drill bit sensing andTechnology not available Revolutionary

Rock propertiesSome measurement-while-drillingRevolutionary

sensing and evaluation capability now exists

Drill bit positioningNotable recent advances in steering Revolutionary

and steering

Borehole sensing Technology not available Revolutionary

The smart drilling system does not currently exist, but it is presaged by recent dramatic
advancements in directional drilling and in technologies of measurement while drilling. Rapid
innovation in microelectronics and other fields of computer science and miniaturization
technology holds the prospect for greater improvements even revolutionary breakthroughs in
these systems.

Drilling is a key technology in several applications of strategic or societal importance, including

 exploration for and extraction of oil, gas, geothermal, and mineral resources;

 environmental monitoring and remediation;

 underground excavation and infrastructure development; and

 scientific studies of the Earth's subsurface.

Oil Drilling

The U.S. petroleum industry maintains a high level of drilling and spending for drilling-related
goods and services in the continental United States, despite the oil price collapse in 1986. This
substantial level of activity should continue in the foreseeable future. In 1990, total petroleum
industry exploration and production was $45.2 billion (American Petroleum Institute [API],
1991). Expenditures for drilling comprised about $10.9 billion of this total and were
concentrated mostly in exploration and development well drilling.

Natural Gas Drilling

Natural gas, which is composed mostly of methane, is a relatively clean and domestically
abundant fuel that provides more than one-fifth of the primary energy used in the United States.
Natural gas is particularly important in the residential sector, where it supplies nearly half of the
energy consumed in U.S. homes (Energy Information Administration, 1993). It can also be
liquefied for use in transportation as compressed natural gas.
Geothermal Drilling

Geothermal energy, including steam, hydrothermal, hot dry rock, and magma resources,
constitutes a large and relatively untapped source of energy in the United States. The U.S.
Geological Survey estimates total geothermal resources in the upper 10 km of the Earth's crust in
the United States to be between 210,000 and 1,100,000 quads which is several orders of
magnitude large than current annual rates of domestic energy consumption.