The Evolution of Sonic Drilling, from Pioneer Ray Roussy
Ray Roussy was just a young engineer working at a struggling company when he assumed his pioneering role for sonic drilling.
Today, Roussy, who lives in British Columbia, helms two global companies that promote the technology worldwide. His efforts have made a significant impact on commercial drilling over the past 40 years.
Roussy grew up in Kirk Lake, Ontario; the area’s diamond drilling activity gave him his first taste of the drilling industry. He attended Northern College, graduating in 1969 with a diploma in mechanical technology. Three years later he earned his master’s degree.
In July, Northern College nominated Roussy for the Premier’s Awards for Outstanding College Graduates, an annual province-wide awards program that recognizes Ontario’s college graduates.
Roussy spoke with National Driller about the nomination, his development of sonic drilling and the technology’s future.
Q.What does it mean to you to be nominated for such a prestigious award by your alma mater?
A.Well, any recognition is always nice to receive, of course. So far it’s just a nomination. A few people have seen it and mentioned it, and there was a little article in one of the local newspapers.
For me, college was an essential step. I lived in a small town. I had no counselors at school, no one to guide me in the right direction. Attending university would have involved moving to another city — I didn’t have the finances nor the support nor the encouragement to go there, so having a college to go to as a stepping stone was quite important for me. I probably wouldn’t have gotten my education had I not gone to college.
Q.You’ve worked in sonic drilling for about 40 years. How has the technology changed or evolved in that time?
A.I started the company in 1979. When I started, no one had heard of the sonic drill, and now it’s fairly mainstream. It replaced a couple of methods, mainly because we introduced a much better technology for doing that kind of work, something that does the job better and does it much faster.
Q. How did you discover sonic drilling?
A.There was a company that had acquired the rights to a vibratory pile driving technology and that was looking for someone experienced in the drilling industry. I was hired there as a junior engineer and started playing with this lab equipment. The person who sold it to us hadn’t been very truthful — the vibratory part wasn’t reliable. The pile driving aspect didn’t seem very viable, so we started to concentrate on what we could do with this machine. The first thing I did was hang this vibrating machine on a large piece of forestry equipment, put a pipe on the end and vibrate it into the ground. That was the start of investigating the application of this vibratory drill.
Then we tried to vibrate the pipe into hard ground to see if the machine could do it. At the time I was a little disappointed. It was a pretty big piece of pipe, but it wouldn’t penetrate hard ground because there was too much resistance. But what I found was if I used an open-ended piece of pipe, I could make it into the ground. So that’s where it started.
Shortly after that a company from Manitoba called Midwest Drilling took a look at what we were doing to see if they could give us any ideas. I explained the only way I could make it penetrate hard ground was if I had an open-ended piece of pipe. What happens then is the dirt goes in and I had to shake it out. You turn the vibrator on again and the material that was in the pipe will flow out smoothly. The rep from Manitoba said, we have diamond drills that can take good cores of rock but are not good at taking cores of over-burdened materials. If this machine can take core samples of ore material, it’s actually very important. We were really on the right track. That was how we knew we had a machine that could do something specific that was worthwhile in the drilling industry.
From there the company I worked with decided to shut down our factory and transfer us to Vancouver. It eventually went out of business in the early ’80s. I could see the writing on the wall so I left the company in 1980 and had started my own company in 1979, Sonic Drilling Ltd. I knew by then it was useful technology and had many applications it could be expanded into. And the technology was in the public domain.
Q. Did the company take off quickly?
A.No, things were actually quite rough at the beginning. There was a severe recession in ’81-’82. The whole world seemed to stop functioning. There was very little activity going on; it was one of the worst times to try to go into business. I was pretty naïve at the time and I knew I could accomplish what needed to be done. But it’s expensive to develop technology like this, and it cost more money than I had available. So what I decided to do was use my own machine for contracting purposes to earn the revenue to develop the technology and start selling machines. It was another 10 years before my contracting operation was operating full-time.
Up until 1990 there were just a few companies using the machines. It wasn’t well known at all. Starting in the 1990s various articles were written and the technology became more recognized. We later started the manufacturing company, called Sonic Drill Corp. In addition, in the early 2000s I licensed the technology to a Japanese company.
Today I’m approached retirement age, or at least the age where I should be thinking about it. So have to start thinking about what happens beyond when I’m not involved. Right now the Japanese company is expanding in the Asian market. We’re selling our drill heads to a number of companies around the world. Our contract division continues to function. We plan to continue expanding sales of sonic drill heads in various sizes to companies around the world and to develop the technology for a few more applications we think it would be well suited for, like construction-related pile installation, deep foundation work.
Q. Sonic drills are used in geothermal, environmental, mining and other sectors of drilling. Are there new applications you expect to see in the field in the near future?
A. There are a few possibilities but research will have to be done. For example, blasthole drilling, which will require a slightly different configuration of machine.
One area that I should mention is that, five to seven years ago, we as well as most of the industry focused on geothermal drilling. It looked like it would consume everyone’s resources. But oil and gas prices have dropped. So that took the sales out of geothermal. That affected our plans dramatically; we’d been gearing up. I presume it will come back but have no idea how long it will take. Natural gas is plentiful and cheap, so no one is very concerned about energy right now.
Q. What challenges does sonic drilling face as a technology competing with other methods of drilling?
A.Operator training is probably the biggest one. Also, the drill tooling is more extensive and subject to more wear than with conventional machines. So rates for sonic drilling have to be higher for conventional machines. On the other hand, because it works so much faster, it more than compensates for that disadvantage. There’s no other machine that will do the core samples.
Alexa Stanard is a freelance writer for National Driller.