In 2011, a group of mechanical engineering students built a human-powered drill to dig water wells as part of a senior capstone course. The project seemed promising, but little did they know how life-changing it would become.
Fast forward five years: There are now 55 human-powered “Village Drills” being used in 23 countries, responsible for drilling more than 1,100 boreholes and providing clean water to at least 300,000 people — and probably more.
“For every hour of engineering that was spent by BYU students, over 1,700 people-months of water has been delivered,” said Chris Mattson, BYU professor of mechanical engineering and the original faculty mentor for the project. “That’s over 144 years for every hour of engineering spent by students. That’s amazing. That’s the kind of impact we want to have.”
The drill belongs to WHOlives.org, a nonprofit that worked with BYU students to produce it six years ago. The drill came about after WHOlives founder John Renouard felt inspired to build something to help African countries access clean water.
Students spent two semesters designing and testing prototypes of the drill, and settled on a design that looks kind of like a spear that has vertically impaled a wheel of fortune. It is operated by four people, three who spin the wheel to turn the drill bit, and a fourth who lifts the bit up and down to punch through tough spots. A water pump system removes the dirt from the 6-inch-wide hole it creates.
The team first tested the drill in Tanzania in 2011, striking water after successfully reaching a 70-foot depth. Today, the drill has irrigated 109 acres, employed 238 people and provided 2 million people-months of water across Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Mali, Bolivia, the Philippines, and more.
Part of the success of the drill is that it 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.
“There might be a million people out there drinking clean water today because of the work of these engineers at BYU,” Renouard said. “It’s not every day you can work on a project that has the potential to change the world. I hope the students never lose sight of what they did during those seven months to develop the drill.”