Human-powered drill for clean water in developing nations built by student engineers

April 1, 2011, Brigham Young University

( -- The contraption looks like a spear that impaled a wheel of fortune, but it does more than give contestants a chance to buy a vowel or solve the puzzle. The device is actually a human-powered drill built by a team of BYU engineering students, who hope it will help Tanzanians drill the 250 feet required to access clean drinking water.

Other water-drilling alternatives in the region either can’t dig deep enough or cost too much, sometimes upwards of $15,000. But the team’s device has the potential to drill a 150- to 250-foot-deep hole in a matter of days—all for about $2,000.

The drill was created for a year-long engineering capstone project that has students solving real engineering problems with real clients. The team created the drill for, a nonprofit dedicated to providing clean water, better health and more opportunities to people living in impoverished communities. The organization is currently focusing its drilling efforts on Tanzania, but it has plans to expand its operations to other countries. The project is also co-sponsored by the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology.

John Renouard, the co-founder of, said this project is a sustainable way to impact people all over the world.

“People with great intentions often go over there and give stuff away, but sometimes it’s just a Band-Aid on a bigger injury,” he said. “But this could ultimately bring water to millions of people. The BYU team hit a home run.”

But that home run didn't come without its fair share of strikeouts. The team ran into some complications with their initial wood prototype, and they had to put in twice as many hours as required by the course to complete their final metal model.

The BYU team also had to operate within a number of strict parameters set by so that the final product can be easily built and maintained in developing countries. The drill uses no gears or customized parts, and it can easily be taken apart, transported in the bed of a truck and reassembled within an hour.

The drill can be operated by four people. Three spin the that turns the bit, and the fourth lifts the bit up and down when necessary to punch through tough spots. A water pump system removes the dirt from the six-inch-wide hole.

“At the beginning of the year we had a meeting with the sponsor, and he said that very rarely do you get an opportunity to work on a project that can change millions of lives,” said Nathan Toone, one of the student engineers who worked on the . “You forget that sometimes when you’re in the middle of working and setbacks and frustrations, but it’s really good to see it pay off. It has definitely paid off.”

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not rated yet Apr 01, 2011
Great idea. My main question is why is this arm powered rather than leg powered?
not rated yet Apr 01, 2011
Great idea. My main question is why is this arm powered rather than leg powered?

It's either. When the drill is moving freely, you can stand in one spot. You can push with your legs and even put your chest against the bar in tough spots. That was the first thing I noticed about the design--you effectively get two speeds with no gears needed. (I'd like some padding, but I'd also like gloves. Both are nice but not necessary.)
not rated yet Apr 01, 2011
Good idea for a student project. The final thing came out looking pretty professional too. Nice job.
not rated yet Apr 02, 2011
Classic capstan-- Kept Nelson's navy moving !!
not rated yet Apr 04, 2011
Classic capstan--
I think Nelson's did not have a 'Hammer' for 'punching', or extra punch, in hard spots.

Congratulations to All 'Engineers' involved!
A Great Feeling, having accomplished a project which, besides feeding multitudes, will save countless hours of toil, grief, and Crop Failure!

Roy J Stewart,
Phoenix AZ
not rated yet Apr 28, 2011
Thanks for your interest! This is Nathan, the student engineer quoted in the article above. I am trying to contribute to all the forums and blogs where our Human-Powered Water Well Drill is being discussed.

Please refer to additional news articles for other details on the project. Just Google "BYU Water Drill" and most of the articles will be the top hits.

Anyone may email me directly at with any questions. We are excited as well for the future. In May 2011 (in 2 weeks) we are taking our drill to Tanzania to see how it does. Hopefully you'll hear more about us!

To address some above comments, since we can control the rate of descent with the winch, the drill bit never becomes stuck so the wheel continues to spin freely during drilling. Because of its fly wheel nature, very little effort is needed to keep it spinning. And yes, when high toque is needed the full body can be put into the wheel. We anticipate soft soil in Tanzania, but we can go through rock-slowly.

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