top of page

Mears HDD Simulator

Mears Group, Inc., a leading provider of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) and Direct Pipe® services, has developed an integrated HDD simulator that works with actual HDD drilling controls showing the interaction between driller and the drilling rig.  The first of its kind.............

The HDD, maxi-rig, simulator was an idea that the Mears’ Research and Development team wanted to pursue.  There was a need for a more safe and efficient way to train and prepare potential HDD drillers before they went into the field to operate an actual maxi-drilling rig.  The HDD simulator allows the drilling trainee to virtually see the rig in operation as they manipulate the controls, making it much easier to train than ever before.

                Early development began in June of 2016 with discussion between Mears HDD, Steve Meaders (Mears Research & Development), Neil Smith (Mears Sr. VP) and Karl Quackenbush (Mears Director of Fleet Operations) and Intuitive Machines (an engineering design and development think tank comprised of former NASA engineers).  Shaun Stewart, Sr. Design Engineer of Intuitive Machines, was assigned project manager of the Mears’ HDD Simulator Project.  Stewart’s experience with NASA covers many years of developing simulators to train and prepare astronauts for flying new vehicles in space.

Stewart explains, “The idea behind the simulator is the same, to apply real human interface to a complex machine – being able to train the guys in doing a potentially dangerous and complex task without putting anyone at risk.” 

To gain an understanding of the interaction between driller and drilling rig, Stewart visited a Mears’ project that was in progress in South Carolina.  He was able to observe the drilling rig reaming a hole that was being prepared for pullback.  He also interviewed the drillers, took videos and pictures of the rig in action, observed how the controls work, and how the entire process behaves. 

Currently, as with most HDD contractors, Mears trains their team in the field.  Each crew member follows a protocol and learns each part of the HDD operation.  Drilling is not for every person, but if the team member shows potential in this area, they start off tripping pipe (or adding pipe during the reaming process).  It can take years before a person is considered an experienced and competent driller.  The simulator allows the ability to have access and operate the controls without prior knowledge or experience minus the risk or danger to others.

A control panel was fabricated specifically for the HDD simulator – the electronics had to be customized in how it talks to the rig in the field.  Intuitive Machines developed custom electronics to intercept the analog and digital electrical signals from the control panel and pass them to a physical model of the drilling rig used for simulation – “We had to emulate what the machine does in relation to which controls are being manipulated by the driller,” explains Stewart.

In 2015, Mears made the decision to standardize all the driller’s consoles on all of the HDD rigs in the Mears’ fleet, irrespective of the rig model or manufacturer.  The changeover for the entire HDD rig fleet driller’s consoles was completed in early 2016.   Additionally, a new 1.3 million pound rig and a new 440 was purchased in late 2016 and fitted with the “designated” driller’s console prior to departure from the factories.

The decision to standardize the driller’s consoles in all of the Mears rigs from 140,000 pound class to 1.3 million pound class allowed Mears to pursue the HDD Simulator Project in which this “standard” driller’s console would be utilized.  Potential drillers could then be trained on the exact same console they would later utilize in the control cabin of each and every Mears’ HDD rig.

Melvin Brady, Mears’ HDD driller for the past 18 years, has been part of the development and testing of this new virtual technology.  With his years of drilling experience, he has been able to work the controls and watch as he operates the carriage and add drill pipe to the drill string.  Coming from

real-world drilling, he finds the similarity between real and virtual surprisingly similar.  “Due to the fact the technology is ever changing in this industry, this simulator will allow any new developments to be added to the trainer so that all of the Mears’ personnel can be brought up to speed in a group setting.  I am amazed that the controls react so closely to the actual controls in the rigs, no matter what class rig,” states Brady.

The HDD simulator program has completed its first phase modeling the beginning stages of drilling.  “In this phase, the baseline simulation architecture was established, and the actual hardware control panel was integrated to show the correlation of the rig controls to the model of the rig and show the expected response in the control panel gauges and virtual graphics,” explains Stewart.  Upgrades to the simulator are developed to model not only the American Augers DD440 rig (which is currently implemented in the simulator), but also to the Prime Drilling 1.3 million pound capacity drilling rig.  Further visual enhancements are also planned. 

The second phase is simulating the pilot hole process – which is the most complicated because it requires modeling the mud circulation, hole cleaning, and how the drill cuts into whatever soil types are being modeled.  The orientation of the tool face and how much force and torque is applied while drilling can result in an infinite number of outcomes for the resulting hole path and hole integrity.  There are an unlimited number of differing scenarios that can occur during this process.  There are state of the art models that exist today that can emulate expected responses while drilling into certain types of soil, but they run on supercomputers and can run days at a time, explains Stewart.  “So we are taking those algorithms and deploying them so we can have an immediate realistic response for the driller,” he says.  

Being able to capture what happens and the reality of what can occur during the drilling process is key.  The scenarios are being modeled and those measurements that are generated during drilling recreated.  As you are “drilling” on the simulator you have the same kind of information available as you would in real life drilling. 

As the HDD Simulator Project continues evolving to its next phase, Mears is excited to see its idea come to fruition.  “The possibilities are endless,” explains Meaders.  “After 40 years in the HDD industry, I’ve seen a lot of progress that has developed in our field making our job safer and easier.  This simulator allows us to train new drillers in a safe environment where skills can be developed without the pressures of needing to maintain project production.”

Training made more efficient and safe is good news for an industry that is facing a shortage of qualified operators.  Having the ability to train personnel with no drilling experience – and to do this in the safety of the HDD simulator – is a huge step in producing more qualified and competent operators.  Having hands-on training on the drilling console and facing a virtual image of what is happening in front of them creates a learning environment that is both realistic and interactive.

Once trainees have mastered the virtual world and consistently made correct decisions through quick, proactive actions with the controls, they can then transfer this knowledge to the field.  Transferring this knowledge, reducing the risk of injury or damage, is what makes this technology so valuable.

Article by: Cheryl Kohn-Marks

Mears Group, Inc.

Horizontal Directional Drilling


bottom of page