Columnist Rich Maxwell says that "to the best of my knowledge" the HDD business has been around for about the same length of time as National Driller -- 20 years.

Our wonderful publication National Driller is celebrating, as well they should, their 20th anniversary! In the spirit of things, today I want to reflect back on the past 20 years in the horizontal directional drilling industry which is really the history of HDD as the concept is not much older than that. I don't claim to be completely historically accurate, but "to the best of my knowledge" the HDD business has been around for about the same length of time as National Driller. The HDD industry actually began on several fronts, contractors trying to find a way to solve problems. Martin Cherrington is recognized as one of the inventors of the technology. You might remember my column around three years ago when I talked about Martin Cherrington as "the granddaddy of directional drilling."

Martin gave me a tour of his yard where I saw one of his first chain-driven "slant rigs" which pushed 10' drill pipe into the ground with a wedge-shape bit on the end. "When you rotate the drill pipe it bores straight ahead," Martin explained. "When you stop rotating and push on the drill rod it redirects the drill path according to the position of the wedge." That's how it all works.

On the first attempts all Cherrington wanted to do was get the drill head to come up on the other side of the road, which it did to the excitement of Pacific Gas & Electric and the Cherrington crew. So began directional drilling from a Sacramento, CA perspective. After perfecting the technique, Cherrington went the large-rig route, partnered with pipeline companies in Houston to build rigs using 6E to 8E diameter drill pipe.

Down the coast another contractor, Fred Melsheimer, started out using small (1E) diameter drill rod with a wedge-shaped bit. The Melsheimer family, now Melfred Borzall, Inc. of Santa Marie, CA has similar stories of trial and error. Melsheimer coined the term "slurry boring" as he used drill tube and drilled with low-pressure water to lubricate and slurry the drilling process.

One other significant starting point was in Washington State with a company that specialized in water jetting techniques - Flow Mole. Flow Mole designs precision tooling that will cut hard material such as steel using water. In the early 80's the Electric Power Research Institute had earmarked millions of dollars to develop a way to follow existing pipe with larger pipe for installation of new parallel lines. This project did not get off the ground but in the process jetting was considered, Flow Mole entered the picture and "guided drilling" was perfected in the electric power construction industry.

Flow Mole (now knows as UTYLX) become a contractor, manufactured their own fleet of drills and quickly spread through out the US and now the world with HDD contracts in the electric utility markets.

Have I mentioned yet that contractors are ingenious and resourceful? You can guess what happened next. At least three contractors I know of began to watch this phenomenal method of non-intrusively installing cable and pipe and began to build their own version. Once the opportunity was discovered, commercialization began most notably at the 1988 ICUEE show in Louisville, KY when Ditch Witch and StraightLine surprised the industry with new directional drills, brightly painted, ready for sale. Other first players in the small rig class were Underground Technologies and American Augers who also custom build Cherrington-type big rigs.

Time won't permit discussing what happened next except to say when the bell companies finally accepted the technology and when the long-haul telecommunications boom hit, HDD became the accepted method for installing cable and pipe worldwide.

Today there are at least a dozen manufacturers of HDD rigs from 2-inch to 32-inch drill rod. Some experts estimate there are now over 10,000 drills on the North American continent. So what will the next 20 years bring?

I see three major areas where the HDD industry will mature and evolve in the next 20 years.

  • You will see a standardization of operator skill levels. Non-profit organizations will offer classes and certification levels for beginners, advanced and special topic drilling practices.
  • The equipment will become mechanically automated, electronically monitored and documented and more standardized as tooling and locating equipment becomes interchangeable. What a mouthful!
  • Drilling will become high-tech. Emerging technologies will provide as-built monitoring of where the rig is (GPS & wireless), where the head is (GPR & electromagnetic) and what other infrastructure is in the vicinity (GPR & acoustic.
  • I don't mean to end on a negative note, but think about it, while you are reading this article there are 7,000 to 8,000 drills punching a hole in the ground somewhere. Millions of feet are being installed every day, underground, invisibly without disruption to streets, rivers and landscape. But what about tomorrow? Where do we go? The utility corridors are full.

Every city and county in America is discussing right-of-way (ROW) permitting. Most major highways across our country have three to six fiber-builds going down both sides of their ROW. Where do we go next? This will be the biggest challenge to the contractor, who always seems to get stuck with the liability.

My belief is that just as the California contractors 20 years ago figured out a way to solve their problems, which changed the utility and pipeline construction world, so today conscientious contractors will find a way to safely install new cable and pipe.