In the 1998 film Armageddon, a group of rugged drillers led by Bruce Willis’ character is recruited to save the world by drilling into an Earth-bound asteroid to lower a nuclear device that will bust the rock in half. In a plot filled with slick futuristic spacecraft and technology, what of the drilling? Willis’ crew uses regular drill rods and blowout protectors, and achieve a nothing-special shift of 180 feet – all pretty boring and standard stuff.

Despite Hollywood’s lack of imagination for drilling technology, innovators are hard at work developing and refining numerous advancements that stand to make drilling faster, safer and cheaper – and some technologies could be bona fide game-changers.

The Australia-based Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC) is at the forefront of mineral exploration drilling innovation where numerous technologies are being built and tested at a decommissioned open-pit mine test facility. In response to growing drilling costs but diminishing mineral deposit discovery rates, this research organization was established in 2010 and boasts $145 million in government and in-kind partner funding.

Recently, a team of DET CRC researchers used carbon fibre drill rods in successfully completing an HQ-sized test hole to 100 metres. Although primarily designed to house behind-the-bit, real-time sensors of rocks, intersected, carbon fibre drill strings are being investigated – and at 30 per cent of the weight of industry-standard steel rods, these rods have an obvious edge in deep-drilling situations. But this technological leap also has significant upside for helicopter-supported drilling programs of the type perfected in the remote mountainous regions of British Columbia and Yukon. For typical drill depths, lighter drill strings could be effectively deployed with much lighter drills, requiring smaller and lighter drill pads. Given the high cost of transporting equipment between drill sites, there is significant potential to drill more metres with fewer dollars when these drill rods become commercially available.

The portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer has become as common on exploration sites as a Brunton compass, so it is no surprise that integration of these rapidly acquired geochemical data sets is extending to drilling platforms. Although the technology won’t replace the eyes of a geologist anytime soon, researchers from the DET CRC, in collaboration with Geoscience Australia and the Geological Survey of Victoria, recently drilled a series of holes with real-time XRF and XRD data capture and management. Geochemical and mineralogical results were immediately available for interpretation through the web.

This technology has the scope to advance rapidly, whereby hole status information such as drill hole deviation and drilling rate will be included with geochemical, mineralogical and physical rock property data in a single database available anywhere in the world in real time. Significantly, it is possible to embed electrical sensors within composite drill rods, opening the door to the collection of information immediately as the bit passes the rock. Rig-managing geologists in the future will be armed with significantly more information when making key – and costly – decisions about shutting down or extending exploration drill holes and planning followup holes.

Safety innovation may not have the glamour effect of shiny carbon fibre drill equipment technology, but over the past several years the prevailing mindset has shifted to recognize drill safety as a clear money saver, a social obligation and an area devoid of innovation.

A major quality certification program – launched in 2012 by the Canadian Diamond Drilling Association – is becoming the stick by which drilling contractors are measured. Only five Canadian drilling contractors have successfully achieved Drilling Excellence Certification (DEC), which shows it is not simply a stack of paperwork and a rubber stamp. By contrast, DEC is a single integrated system that improves health and safety as well as environmental and quality performance.

Perhaps the biggest technological leap will be applying coiled tube (CT) technology to mineral exploration. CT drilling is commonplace in the oil and gas sector where steel or composite tubing – flexible enough for rolling on large spools – is used mostly for interventions down existing wells. Replacing straight drill rods for flexible tubing in mineral exploration holes precludes whole core recovery, but the faster drill rates owing to uninterrupted drilling could outweigh this downside.

The DET CRC – betting that CT drilling will replace conventional drilling in greenfield exploration applications – has built a prototype rig, which recently completed its first test hole. Researchers aim to have the wrinkles ironed out by 2018 with CT mineral exploration drilling costing $50 per metre.

While information gleaned from drilling has been the cornerstone of mineral deposit discovery since the 1950s, technological leaps have been sporadic and drilling has suffered from the reputation of being “old school.” But don’t be surprised to see more carbon fibre and computers and fewer pipe wrenches the next time you visit a remote drilling rig.