Canadian Mining Journal

Feature

Seven trends driving drone adoption

The adoption of drones in mining is growing rapidly.



Kespry’s drone software makes volumes of material easy to measure and track. CREDIT: KESPRY

In September, CMJ headed to the annual InterDrone conference in Las Vegas, speaking with several companies in the drone service and software business, and moderating a panel on the use of drones in mining. Here’s what we found.

Since mining and aggregates companies first started to adopt drone technology several years ago, it has saved them time and money while increasing safety.

A quarry elevation heat map with contour lines. CREDIT: PROPELLER AERO

As a result, miners have embraced the technology and are finding more ways to use the.

“Three years ago, you could count the number of drones in mines, construction, and quarries on your hands and feet,” said Mike Winn, a cofounder of DroneDeploy.

“Now, there are thousands of them and in the not too distant future there will be not just one drone per job site, but actually multiple, and you’ll see them flying frequently across these sites.”

Drones are now firmly entrenched in applications such as volumetrics, mapping, and equipment inspection, CMJ heard at InterDrone.

So now that drones are being embraced by the mining sector, what are some of the future trends in the industry? Drones are going in-house Many companies started out intending to sell drone flying services or actual drones to customers, but the dominant companies in the space offer more. They have software that makes stockpile reconciliation, contour mapping, blasting, mine planning and day-to-day operations cheaper and easier to manage.

Mining companies have stepped up to buy and fly their own drones, realizing it’s the most practical and cost-effective way to make use of the technology.

“It’s hard to see this industry scale if people are not buying their own drones,” said Lewis Graham, president and chief technical officer of GeoCue Group.

“The way we see it moving forward is more and more mining companies are going to internalize the actual flying. We have customers today that are flying their own drones that two years ago said they would never think about doing this – so we have seen that shift and it’s all about scale,” Graham said.

“They themselves really can’t see how to do it in an affordable way without internalizing at least a part of it.”

Besides, companies have made the drones and the software that processes droned data, easy to use.

“Drones are a lot simpler than you might think to operate,”

says Winn of DroneDeploy. “Images are uploaded to our cloud and we process them into 3-D models. The whole process is designed to be very easy.”

With the most popular drone in the industry – the Phantom 4Pro only around US$1,500, there’s no barrier for smaller companies/ operations to make use of the technology.

However, most companies still rely on service providers to ensure they’re making the most of the technology.

“Most of our clients self-perform,” said Adam Rice, business development director at Kespry. “They engage Kespry a lot in what they’re looking to do to help solve the problem and build some sort of protocol for collecting data that meets their needs.”

Drone data can unlock productivity

In an industry that’s been focused on productivity, drone data offers new ways to unlock those advances, says Francis Vierboom, co-CEO of Propeller Aero.

He notes that while information technology has turned ecommerce, finance, consumer electronics and other industries upside down, there are a lot of things on large work sites in the mining, construction and heavy civil engineering fields that look the same as they did 20 years ago.

“The pace of change hasn’t been the same and I think it’s been hard for those industries to benefit from all of the information technology that has been available,” he says. “There’s a lot of spreadsheets out there at construction sites.”

Although there have been productivity improvements, Vierboom says drone data opens up another level of innovation and productivity gains.

one on the same page, repository of info, it ends up being just kind of a normal background part of meetings.”

Automation

Drones are starting to be used to collect data input for automated machine control – for example, to provide a good topographic map to feed data into equipment like autonomous haul trucks. Graham sees this trend as a main driver in the future for the drone business.

“Companies like Rio Tinto are already doing it and it will come down to smaller businesses,” he says. “But to do that, you have to fly every day – it can’t happen every week, you have to map every single day, you need a new topography to run equipment.”

New uses continue to evolve

GeoCue’s Graham says mining New uses continue to evolve clients are always asking about new ways to use drones.

“When we first started selling technology to the mining industry, we focused on volumetrics because that was the thing they needed to do,” he said. “But once they realize the value of being able to put a sensor anywhere they need to put a sensor – which is really the only purpose a drone serves – they’re really inventing new ways of using them on a weekly basis.”

Graham adds this trends will spur the development of new sensors that can be flown on drones.

While sensors are currently limited, with optical, infrared and basic laser scanners being the main types, Graham sees the development of new sensors that can be flown on drones in the future (for example, vibration or magnetometer).

Adam Rice of Kespry agreed, adding: “We’re at the tip of the iceberg and the thing that’s going to diversify application is sensor integration – being able to put different sensors and automate some of the answers that you can get back,” he said. “There’s going to be a true marriage of the physical and digital states in an industry that hasn’t really changed a lot.”

Rice says another evolving area is integration of drone data with other third-party systems that mining companies may use.

Bringing the raw data into software you can use to manipulate 3-D data like Vulcan or Surpac will lead to new applications of “A big part of it is just the fact that there’s a new kind of information that is actually going to empower people to do a lot more themselves with this information. And because it’s so visual, it’s easier for work site teams to comprehend and collaborate on.

“We are finding that as people adopt Propeller as a visualization platform for their drone data, they’re discovering a really wide range of different impacts they can have on a number of workflows that they do. So because you have this shared, everyone on the same page, repository of info, it ends up being just kind of a normal background part of meetings.”

Automation Drones are starting to be used to collect data input for automated machine control – for example, to provide a good topographic map to feed data into equipment like autonomous haul trucks. Graham sees this trend as a main driver in the future for the drone business.

“Companies like Rio Tinto are already doing it and it will come down to smaller businesses,” he says. “But to do that, you have to fly every day – it can’t happen every week, you have to map every single day, you need a new topography to run equipment.”

New uses continue to evolve GeoCue’s Graham says mining clients are always asking about new ways to use drones.

“When we first started selling technology to the mining industry, we focused on volumetrics because that was the thing they needed to do,” he said. “But once they realize the value of being able to put a sensor anywhere they need to put a sensor – which is really the only purpose a drone serves – they’re really inventing new ways of using them on a weekly basis.”

Graham adds this trends will spur the development of new sensors that can be flown on drones.

While sensors are currently limited, with optical, infrared and basic laser scanners being the main types, Graham sees the development of new sensors that can be flown on drones in the future (for example, vibration or magnetometer).

Adam Rice of Kespry agreed, adding: “We’re at the tip of the iceberg and the thing that’s going to diversify application is sensor integration – being able to put different sensors and automate some of the answers that you can get back,” he said. “There’s going to be a true marriage of the physical and digital states in an industry that hasn’t really changed a lot.”

Rice says another evolving area is integration of drone data with other third-party systems that mining companies may use.

Bringing the raw data into software you can use to manipulate 3-D data like Vulcan or Surpac will lead to new applications of the data.

Integrating the data into ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems such as SAP could also lead to new insights, such as in sales forecasting based on inventory.

Accuracy will continue to improve

The question of accuracy in aerial mapping is a complex one. A survey can be relatively accurate (the position of one point to another in a map or model) without having a high degree of absolute accuracy (how closely a point on a map or model corresponds with its actual physical coordinates).

Using ground control points – markers on the ground that are placed strategically around the mapping area – will increase absolute accuracy, although this level of accuracy isn’t necessary for all applications (such as volumetrics).

“Accuracy needs to be product driven,” Winn said. “In different scenarios, you need different things. Just orthomosaic (individual images that are stitched together to form a composite) can be very useful – not necessarily to make all your comparisons against, but actually give you a very good sense of what’s going on and give you a useful volumetric record.”

A lot of drone software presents data in a powerful, attractive and easy to grasp visual form. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

It can be instructive for companies to experiment with drone technology to understand the value they can get from it and potential pitfalls, says Winn.

“You can actually start quite small – it costs $1,000 to buy a drone on Amazon – and its’s really good to pair that bottom up approach with working top down.”

Doing so will help companies answer questions such as: “What is the process for me to scale this across my organization? What do I need to be able to share data? What does my CEO need?”

Advances in drone hardware

There are limitations to UAVs in terms of flying time, flying conditions, and the cameras and sensors they can fly.

“People always want a drone that flies longer,” said Kespry’s Rice.

“They always want a drone that flies in 45 mile an hour winds and torrential downpours – so there are going to be some operational improvements that the industry’s going to be able to provide.”

Big Data

Lastly, drone data will be another Big Data input that will have future implications for businesses.

“Looking into the future, there are really important reasons to start building up this data set,” Vierboom said. “It is like an actual record of your site every day, and having a record of your site that reaches back for years is going to open up big efficiency opportunities. It’s one of those things that companies need to start building today to be able to have that advantage in the future.”


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