Big rigs are helping drillers pump more for less

A driller controls the drilling process from the cabin through the control joy sticks and screens. The driller uses strategically mounted cameras on the rig to monitor activities, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, near College Station.

On a drilling rig towering above quiet cattle farms in Southeast Texas, Eric Williams perched inside the cabin of the 16-story machine, twisting a pair of joysticks to guide a gigantic wrench roaring into action, drowning out every sound as it reached for a 1,500-pound pipe emerging from the earth.

Soon, that pipe will feed oil into a second shale boom.

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Years ago, a worker doing Williams’ job would have stood outside on the rig floor, working a brake handle and knobs as men, drenched in sweat and syrupy fluid, worked the pipe by hand – a dangerous job. Now he sits behind six computer screens and a complex array of controls, piloting a 10-ton wrench on a so-called super-spec rig, one of a new breed of advanced drilling machines that are bigger and stronger than the ones that sparked the first U.S. shale oil bonanza a few years ago.