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Local Manufacturer MEDATech Scores World 1st

Heavy equipment engineering firm MEDATech builds first hybrid drilling rig

With thousands of  embankment dams aging rapidly across eastern North America, utilities and governmental organizations have some work to do.

An embankment dam is one that’s built by piling up a mountain of rocks and debris so that the water from a reservoir can’t break through. It’s that kind of dam that failed so spectacularly near Brumadinho, Brazil in 2019. Stabilizing such a dam involves drilling down through earth, rock and sand overburden into the bedrock, then pumping in concrete grout that fills in any voids along the way, which are often caused by water erosion.

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“When you have a tall dam with a reservoir on top and an outlet a hundred or so feet below, it creates a lot of hydrostatic pressure,” explains Robert Rennie, President of Collingwood firm MEDATech. “These dams are eroding more quickly than they are being repaired. It’s a big issue.”

Utilities, especially those in the eastern U.S., went on a dam-building spree starting in the 1960s to harness massive amounts of hydroelectric power. The embankment-style dams are the ones among those that are all reaching the age where they need remediation. The problem is that it’s a slow process.

“You typically have to use two different drilling rigs to finish one stabilization hole,” explains Rennie. “Water hammer is the quickest, but it would destabilize the overburden—just the thing we’re trying to solve in the first place.” The answer to use sonic drilling technology to drive through the overburden, then switch to water hammer to drive into the bedrock.

The two technologies had never before been combined into one drill rig…until very recently. “We talked with our contacts at Southern Corporation, a subsidiary of Alabama Power, and they were excited for us to build a hybrid rig,” smiles Rennie. “Doing things like that is our sweet spot, so it was game-on immediately.”

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MEDATech is something of an anomaly in their industry. Launched in 2003, the company solves complex problems, building bespoke machines. Known as the “engineering ninjas of the heavy equipment world”, the firm bucks the trend of mass-producing machines for mining, energy or other applications to concentrate on pushing the envelope of what’s possible. That’s how MEDATech started up its thriving electric-drive division for massive machines, ALTDRIVE, and its equally successful drilling division, Borterra.

MEDATech delivered their hybrid drilling rig, dubbed the WS6000, to the Logan Martin embankment dam in Vincent, AL in August 2020. Equipped with both sonic and water hammer drills, the rig also boasts another first: robotic drill rod handling. What used to be a dangerous manual task—putting sections of heavy drill rod down the hole—is now accomplished more quickly, with 95% less handling. The rig is also equipped with a control system that enables remote diagnostics from anywhere in the world. “It’s like the Tesla of drill rigs,” laughs Rennie. “We can change robotics and other rig functions from right here in Collingwood.”

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The rig’s efficiencies are many: one rig worth about USD $2 million will replace two rigs worth a combined $3 million; half the maintenance; fewer workers needed to operate it; less time to drill and fill holes; and better health & safety.

“What’s next?” Rennie asks rhetorically. “Well, we’re talking with the people at Vale in Brazil right now and they want an embankment drill rig like this one, except fully autonomous. They want to operate it from half a kilometre away.” And that sounds like just the kind of challenge that MEDATech thrives on.