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Applying Oilwell Drilling Knowledge to Borewell Drilling To Alleviate Water Scarcity

Sai Madhavi Antharam used her knowledge and expert advise from the oil and gas industry to improve the borewell drill bit designs for hard clays. In the picture: Chabi Kumar Pradhan, in front of the borewell drilled in his field using this technology.

Have you ever felt that your engineering/managerial capabilities are restricted to the petroleum industry? Would you like the technical experience and knowledge you have acquired in the petroleum industry to have a broader application scope? The time is ripe for innovation in the development sector.

I transitioned from the oil field to the agricultural field, and found that the opportunities are limitless. I am currently working with Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT), where we develop advanced technologies to address some of the demanding problems concerning poverty.

Seventy five percent of the world’s food production comes from farmers with small landholdings. Yet most of them remain mired in poverty. Among the several factors that hurt agricultural productivity, lack of access to water for cultivation is a big one. It hurts not only the livelihoods of these farmers but also has implications for global food security.

For approximately 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, by cultivated land area, an acute challenge is access to water, even in areas of groundwater availability.  These areas are considered economically water scarce despite having sufficient groundwater. In developing countries, 20% of the arable land is irrigated. Irrigation in these areas is limited because of lack of innovation in drilling methods, hence farmers rely on inefficient and cost prohibitive methods of manual drilling.

A Case Example

Pradhan at the drilling site.

Chabi Kumar Pradhan, a farmer with a small landholding (2 acres) in the inland village of Dhaulabanapur in the state of Odisha, India, cultivates only 1 acre (4047 m2) of his farmland in the summer and dry years. During this season, his options for water sourcing are limited as the ponds are dry and there is no rainfall. Pradhan prefers to purchase water from a neighboring farmer who has a borewell. As a result, he cultivates low water usage crops, such as eggplant (brinjal), and sells them at low prices. The income from this produce is just enough to make ends meet for the next one. His land lies over an alluvial plain and has abundant groundwater resources, but he is unable to utilize this due to inefficient and overpriced drilling methods available in the market. This challenge faced by farmers is referred to as the economic water scarcity problem, prevalent in developing countries, where the farmers, despite having adequate groundwater, are not able to use it for cultivation. These lands have not profited from the Green Revolution as yet.

Reverse Airflow Drill: An Innovative Solution To Access Groundwater Sustainably

ITT uses advances in technologies to solve prevalent problems in agriculture, sanitation, healthcare, and energy in developing nations. We partner with various ground-level organizations to scale and take it forward.

Working with a US-based inventor Russell Crawford (whose organization aims to drill one million borewells (onemillionwells), ITT has developed a low-cost drill to enable farmers gain access to shallow groundwater in a sustainable manner. The drill uses a patented application of the standard reverse-airflow mechanism powered by a small air compressor. It can dig 10 ft every 60–80 min (depending on the soil type and underlying rock formations), and is ideal for wells up to 100 ft in depth, in most agricultural soils common to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This drill offers significant cost and time advantages over most manual methods and can be easily assembled because of its modular design.

Over multiple iterations, the drill has been refined and successfully demonstrated in several geographies. Close to 100 wells have been drilled in the US (Texas), Mexico, India (Kerala and Odisha), and Zimbabwe in different soil types. These demonstrations have been well-received by the local communities. Before it is made commercially available, the aim is to improve the drill to be able to capture a wider geographic type. This entails drilling more pilot wells in alluvial areas across India and developing new versions of automatic drills which can be used in hard rocks as well.

The Difference A Borewell Makes

Pradhan’s new house in front of the borewell ITT has drilled.

Life looks different for Pradhan after he got a cheaper borewell through our ITT drill in February 2017. He began cultivating more of his land, and earning extra on the side by selling water to nearby farmers. Within 4 months, he had enough money saved up to build a house with storage space for the produce. The change is small but the impact is high.

Access to water made a big impact in Pradhan’s life, and to witness this first hand on the field had a big impact on me. Technological interventions are not easy to implement because they cannot just be an engineered solution but also have to aid in filling the behaviour gap.

Building the Drill: Connecting the Functionalities

With a focus on convenience and ease of manufacturability, our product underwent multiple changes on the field despite us having a good initial working model. We had to solve for multiple challenges based on location, convenience, and material availability. We knew the answers are on the field, in the farmer, and the village. The solution had to work around these constraints for it to be scalable and sustainable. During these field experiences, we came across multiple engineers, fabricators, and self-taught experts. All of them had some great ideas but what helped the most is the support we received throughout. There was always someone who could connect to the functionalities in our product. The drill changed faces daily: We would reach the field at 7 am and by 7 pm, it had a new accessory and a new functionality.

Simple challenges like needing more labor for dismantling the pipes, need for a temporary pipe joint, limited transportation options, cutting through hard clay were solved by designing simple hand tools for lifting or dismantling and through modification of the drill bit at a local fabricator’s workshop.

Many of the aspects of water drilling process were similar to those of the oil and gas sector. I received great support in brainstorming drill bit designs for hard clays from leading drill bit design experts of Baker Hughes and Halliburton. As we are looking to expand to different geographies across South Asia and Africa, we could always use more support from the petro-technical community. A few areas where young professionals and senior experts can help us are:


  • On the field for product development in our upcoming trials

Advising us on

  • Drill bit design: How do we design better drill bits to drill faster in clayey soils?

  • Drilling mud: How do we design a drilling fluid to increase rate of penetration in any type of soil?

  • Well engineering: Do we drill a small pilot well and then ream to desired diameter?

  • Casing: Are there cheaper methods to seal and stabilize the well?

If you chose to volunteer your time or advise to us, please be aware that we operate on a shoestring budget. The designs need to be such that the product can be manufactured in remote villages of very poor countries in Africa and South Asia.

If solving such challenges tickles your fancy, please reach out to me. I am lucky to have gotten the opportunity to use skills I had gained in the oil and gas industry to do good for the poor. I want to use SPE’s TWA forum to extend the opportunity to you all.

Sai Madhavi Antharam graduated with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and master’s in manufacturing science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. She worked as a wireline field engineer with Baker Hughes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. She is currently working for the Institute of Transformative Technologies as a product associate with different teams to provide design, deployment, and operational capabilities for projects in sanitation, rural solar electrification, and water security. She can be contacted at

The Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT) aims to bring to life, the most critical technology breakthroughs required for sustainable global development, and deploy these technologies through innovative, practical business models for large-scale impact. ITT’s report on 50 Breakthroughs identifies the most critical technologies required for sustainable global development.

One Million wells is co-founded by Russell Crawford in the wake of drilling at least one million borewells. After that benchmark has reached, Crawford has promised that he will change the name to One Billion wells. The organization is deep rooted in his belief in creating change and bringing a difference in people’s lives.

The article was sourced from the author by TWA Editors Nazneen Ahmed and Asif Zafar.

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