SAVANNAH, Ga. – A powerful tool enables the Savannah District's Explorations Unit to provide unique capabilities in challenging terrains across the nation. The new sonic drill rig - a piece of high-tech machinery that is the only one of its kind within the federal government - can be used in subsurface and geotechnical investigation projects, serving various federal customers throughout the nation.
Arriving in 2014, the sonic drill gives Savannah's drilling team increased capability to penetrate through all soil types and most rock. It causes minimal disturbance to drilling areas, reduces investigation-derived waste, and saves time in the overall sampling process due to safety and efficiency improvements. The rig also provides increased speed and maneuverability in challenging terrain and difficult subsurface conditions where traditional rotary drilling proves less effective. Because of these advantages, sonic technology is a preferred method of drilling on all earthen embankments associated with dams and levees, said Steven Widincamp, Chief of the Explorations Unit in the Savannah District.
Widincamp and his team had the foresight to procure an in-house sonic drill rig – already a standard in the private sector – to offer a more responsive alternative to USACE districts and other federal agencies. Now the district’s in-demand sonic rig is regularly hired by these customers who don’t have in-house drilling capabilities or programs large enough to support the cost of a drill, which can range from $500,000 to $1.5 million, said Widincamp.
“We saw this several years back,” said Widincamp. “Having this drill allows us to develop expertise in sonic drilling which leads to better scope and estimate preparation when contracting for these services throughout the nation. It also ensures that the American taxpayer is getting the best value for its tax dollar.”
The drill dominates in austere environments and minimizes risks when investigating dams and levees because operators have the option to not use water which poses risks to hydraulically fracturing structures. It easily drills through material most drill rigs have difficulty penetrating, such as sites with extensive layers of cobbles and boulders. It also bores at a rate significantly faster than traditional methods, said Widincamp.
Recently, the rig was able to drill through 100 feet of cobble and soil strata per day on an assignment at Oregon’s Umatilla Army Depot. Later, the sonic rig drilled one of its most consequential sites – Chicago’s Electrified Fish Barrier – to mitigate impacts from Asian carp on the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Its operators must undergo lengthy specialized on-the-job training to become proficient in the rig’s technology. The in-house capability also allows District geologists and engineers to develop new skills, hone old skills and remain proficient in emerging technology. And though ripe with professional advantages, there are significant personal sacrifices: operators spend on average about 90 percent of the year away from their homes and families due to travel demands, said Widincamp.
“We execute more in-house drilling work than any other district with drilling capabilities,” said Widincamp. “It’s a tough niche to fill. We have to find the perfect blend of guys with the right skill set and attitude towards this type of work. They are some of the hardest positions to fill in the Corps.”
Its operators are part of a small, yet vital sub community of practice executing some of the most difficult USACE projects. Counterparts across USACE value their expertise, personnel and resources to support missions nationwide.
“The sonic technology is gaining popularity within USACE,” said Widincamp. “The kind of work we do helps a wide range of agencies and customers. We’re able to take on some of the more difficult projects, offer flexibility, and make sure we’re using standardized processes to provide good quality assurance and control. It’s a collaborative process and customers are very pleased with this working relationship.”
And as the sole proprietor of the most advanced tool in the drilling industry, the district continues to sit at the forefront of drilling capabilities attracting work from around the nation.