From the magazine, HDD

Automatisation of HDD drill rigs: an history summary

The early days of HDD technology in Europe

As early as the Middle Ages the need for wooden water lines from bored out tree-trunks led to the invention of horizontal directional drilling machines. The brilliant Leonardo da Vinci developed drilling machines for vertical and horizontal bores. His drilling machine drawings as well as his drawings of a horizontal drilling machine were created before 1495, more than 510 years ago. It is said that more than ten horizontal drilling machines were produced according to his invention. These machines were mainly used for boring out tree-trunks to produce wooden water lines. It is unknown whether there were any ground boring tests or applications with Leonardo da Vinci’s horizontal drilling machines.

Around 1920, horizontal drilling machines were produced in the Ruhr Area in Germany for use in hard coal. These machines, at first produced in Sprockhoevel, were built to drill horizontal bore holes as long as possible into coal layers to collect dangerous mine gas from these bore holes. Today, in European hard coal mining, these horizontal drilling machines are still used in the removal of gas from coal layers.

Improvement in practical use

The first HDD-unit in Europe from Karlsruhe, southwest Germany in 1986 could not carry out real pipe installation jobs. This was first achieved in 1987 through permanent interaction with European partner companies and investing in engineering-knowledge from Europe. The knowledge gained from the first HDD pipe installation also contributed to machine improvements in the USA with new developments including drill rod connections, expanders, pulling devices, drilling fluid mixing techniques and partly even the design of the machine.

Developments of new HDD applications

Between 1989 and 1993, a wide application range for HDD-technologies was developed in Europe that spread through other continents. For example, the first horizontal drinking water wells, the first environmental technology of hydraulic and pneumatic suction- and rehab-wells, the first HDD-drainages, the first HDD-parallel installations, the first HDD-injection wells, the first HDD-well drill hole jobs, the first HDD-relining jobs and many more pioneering techniques were all developed in Europe.

Variety of HDD manufacturers

The success in the HDD market of FlowTex, Karlsruhe, Ettlingen, Tracto-Technik and Lennestadt in the late 80s and early 90s led to the establishment of new companies throughout Europe, all of which offered an enormous variety of new HDD construction techniques. Conventional drilling machine manufacturers also entered the HDD market with additional products to offer. Some of these companies no longer exist – some companies retired from this market and others could never gain a foothold.

An early innovative development was the small drilling rig of BLIS company, Belgium (1988 – 1990), which used completely new construction methods, featuring coiled tubing up to 35 m in length and a drive inside the bore head. Perhaps it was too early for these small HDD rig developments to be launched to the market. In 1989 the BLIS machines already had been equipped with a partial automated thrust regulation via basic software and the company received an innovation award in Belgium.

Beginning and success of HDD-automatisation

In 1993, the first drawings and concepts for automated HDD operations underground for rock and fluid sampling were drawn, in Karlsruhe, based on requirements for environmental technology applications. In 1996, decisive HDD automatisation steps on different development levels made full monitoring, functional recording and stored program control possible. By 1998, there was a prototype for an HDD unit with fully automatic control that could drill predefined courses autonomously while also self-correcting. In 1999, construction and design for serial production of partly or fully automated generation HDD machines had been completed.

Chronicle of HDD-automatisation between 1993 and 1999


The possibilities of HDD-automatisation were discussed at the Research Centre for Technics and Environment in Karlsruhe, Germany and at the same time, a joint preliminary research project between the HDD machine manufacturer FlowTex Technologie, two environmental institutions and the Research Centre Karlsruhe were founded. The research project involved the construction of a robot for residual pollution sampling and automatic information handling.


Within the preliminary project described above, soil samples were taken from HDD bore holes at various locations in Baden, Germany. A number of robot module prototypes were built for this residual pollution sampling project and at the same time, man-machine-interfaces for trenchless installation systems were studied and numerous micro-controller-circuits, CAN-Feldbus-systems and underground inspection and checking systems were also developed.


Several studies and dissertations dealt with the possibilities of sensor installations in HDD units, Fuzzy-Logic control for the drilling course, stored programming for steering and controlling processes, automatic data transfer and logging and automatisation of repeated processes. The basics for automatisation developments were created separately in Lennestadt by Tracto-Technik and Ettlingen by FlowTex. These were the installations of sensors for data acquisition, logging of machine data and designs for steering and controlling architecture.


By 1996, a Grundodrill machine was available in Lennestadt, which was equipped with SPC control at relevant controlling sections. This SPC-controlled HDD unit was optimised for practical use in the company’s test field. At this time, a study with the Fraunhofer Institut concerning reachable accuracy for automated bore head controlling as well as the drill rig automatisation and sensor insertion in an HDD unit began in Ettlingen, Karlsruhe. At the same time, more precise bore head locating possibilities were developed and Fuzzy-Logic identification fields were defined. Core extraction devices were designed and partly constructed within the AROBIS-project. There were also developments in handling facilities and robot modules for working in HDD bore holes, including the opening and re-sealing of installed plastic pipes.


The testing of the Fuzzy-Logic control and the complete mechanical data acquisition and logging was achieved. The first HDD machine control with a job site suitable PC-version was applied. Further robot modules and technology for the precise installation of open lines were invented and plans for a fully CAN-bus controlled HDD-unit were also been presented.

In 1997, a new concept for an HDD-machine was developed, which focused on the partial automatisation of the drill rod handling in accordance with a steady use of rods during the drilling and on the application of a remote control.


Within the AROBIS-project, there had been extensive test applications of bore hole robots, in which, for example, the main building of a technology factory in Karlsruhe was crossed in order to take fluid and gas samples from a polluted area underneath this building. Numerous new robot modules for the application in HDD-bore holes were also finished.

There was a successful breakthrough with a fully automated HDD unit, which was initially capable of steering and drilling 50 m and later longer distances on its own in the test field in Soellingen. The deflection from the target was 40 cm in the horizontal line and 10 cm in the vertical line with an autonomous running of the HDD unit. At first, the drilling distances had been exactly straight courses, but by 1998, fundamentals for predetermined drilling lines with several curved sections had been worked out.


Ten new robot modules for working in HDD bore holes were finished and mostly successfully tested within the AROBIS-project. Horizontal sampling drillings in two major abandoned polluted areas in Germany were carried out. These drillings reached new dimensions for detailed residual pollution explorations and even for the environmental technology.

FlowTex management postponed plans for HDD automatisation, but not before the new partly-automated HDD machines, the F 40 and F 40 light were created, providing a fully automatic machine variant. Unfortunately, the company was soon declared insolvent meaning this machine could no longer be produced.

Lines of development for HDD-automatisation works

The following three HDD automatisation developments were underway in Germany simultaneously:

“¢ Automatic machine control with the goal of fully automated and self-controlled drilling with Fuzzy-Logic control;
“¢ A new HDD machine with increased operating comfort and partial automatic operation steps; and,
“¢ A residual pollution robot system (AROBIS) for taking varied soil and chemical samplings from the underground.

Work on the first development (drill rig automatisation) began in 1996 with the following goals:

“¢ Reduced drilling time;
“¢ Improved drilling quality;
“¢ Reducing drilling personnel; and,
“¢ Automatic logging of drilling.

The goal for the first design was the independent control of straight drilling courses for the HDD unit. A second development stage dealt with “÷driving along’ predefined curve gradients, while a third stage dealt with any variation required in drilling courses.

In 1998, the first fully automated HDD unit with independent control of its machine functions, independent control of its predetermined drilling course while monitoring navigational data and with an independent adjustment of drilling course against deviation became reality.

For even more precise control within HDD navigations, to within 1 mm as required for the installation of open lines, the navigational acquisition systems inside the bore had to be considerably more precise than they were at that time. In 1998, after machine automatisation had been realised, engineers began looking for extremely accurate navigational systems with a tenfold increase in precision. This was achieved during 1998 and 1999 after numerous trials.

The second development dealt with the revision and improvement of the HDD machine concept, focusing on the partial automatisation of the drill rod handling, the connecting process, inner cleaning, thread greasing, detachment technique (breaking device), the operational management at the control panel, machine data acquisition and in a second stage the implementation of the Fuzzy-Set regulation. By 1997 work on the partial automatisation of the drill rod guide and the operational management at the control panel had commenced.

In 1998, HDD unit components were reassessed, unit functions were dissected and the repeating processes of the components were checked and, wherever possible, SPC control systems were installed. The constructional concept and design for this pioneering HDD machine, for which essential functions were SPC controlled and in come cases were fully automatic, was finished in 1999.

The third development line, which had begun in 1993, dealt with the development of a pipe fitting robot system, which was concerned with the observation of pipelines from behind the pipe wall, installations of special pipes like open lines and the construction of underground junctions.

Indications for HDD automatisation in Japan

The 90s also saw relevant developmental work regarding the automatisation of HDD machines in Japan and a number of these developments have been presented during No-Dig conferences. Projects have focused on steering automatisation and the automatic identification of obstacles through on-board geophysics, the navigational reaction to this and an automatic transmission to the entire course control of the HDD unit.


As described in this outline of HDD-automatisation in Europe, there have been very early and very extensive developmental efforts that resulted in the first HDD unit fully equipped with SPC control in 1996 and the first fully automated and self drilling HDD unit in 1998. These developments have ultimately proved to be highly beneficial for the HDD industry, allowing for a range of new applications for HDD

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