By now most have used, seen or at least heard about how drones are going to transform their lives. Suffice to say, while drones have some transformative benefits, they are just another tool that when properly used can bring significant value.
Over the past couple of years many companies have dabbled with drones, embarking on pilot projects to explore and evaluate their capabilities, their accuracies and many other factors critical to successful enterprise deployment.
We have reached the tipping point whereby large mining, aggregate and other organizations have concluded that the benefits are real and sustainable and that drones are here to stay.
How drones get deployed and used varies greatly. What follows is a brief summary of the most common uses, the workflows that support their deployment and the critical factors that will create sustainable success for an enterprise drone program.
Drones and, more accurately, the processed data that they facilitate the creation of, have relevance in all stages of mining and aggregate production including exploration, regulatory permitting, site planning, operations and reclamation. While there are a multitude of different activities where mining and aggregate producers have found value from drones, the most frequent entry points are usually stockpile inventory measurement and topographic mapping.
When drones are properly deployed, many mining and aggregate producers have seen value across four critical axis: (1) improved data accuracy (2) quicker receipt of actionable information (3) improved safety and (4) reduced costs.
Just getting started? Start with a small project and simple requirements. For example, measure stockpile volumes at one site and if possible, compare the results to known quantities measured with your traditional measurement method. Gain confidence within the organization for the new processes and accuracy of the results.
Many questions will quickly surface. Should you use a drone service provider or internal resources? If you are moving down the path of using internal resources, some of the many decisions to be made will include:
• Who is going to operate the drone?
• What are the requisite FAA licenses and insurance requirements? At a minimum, all commercial drone pilots must have FAA part 107 licenses and the company should have aviation liability insurance (which is not part of most standard commercial liability policies).
• Which drone should we purchase? There are many choices with costs ranging from $1,500 to $30,000+. For most, starting at the lower end (likely with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, or similar) is a good entry point.
• What flight control software is best? Many options exist including DJI Ground Station Pro, Maps Made Easy, among others.
• Is the intended site safe to fly? Some sites are in restricted airspace and require special FAA clearance waivers to fly.
• Are the weather and ground conditions good? Strong winds, rain, snow, excessive heat or cold all present problems with drone flights.
• Who is going to process the drone image data? Do you have the requisite internal resources and computing hardware and software? While some chose to do this with internal resources, many utilize a third party service provider to do the photogrammetric data processing, stockpile volume measurement and topographic mapping.
• What photogrammetric software is best to process the collected drone images? Several options exist: Pix4D, Agisoft Photoscan, among others. Caution, they all require robust computer workstations to process efficiently.
• What is the current workflow? Be sure to understand who the stakeholders are and what file formats they desire to receive the reported results in. Point clouds (.LAS files) are usually problematic and most prefer to receive engineering topographic files in formats of the software that they currently use, such as AutoCAD Civil 3D.
• Is a drone the right tool? Before drinking the “drones can do it all Kool-Aid”, there will be times that using a drone may not be the best tool. Proximity to controlled airspace, the size of the site and ground conditions are some factors that potentially make piloted aircraft with image sensors or LiDAR a more suitable option.
Scaling a drone program
After a period of time, following initial success at one location, it is time to grow and expand a drone program, looking to solve additional problems such as topographic mapping and/or scaling to multiple locations throughout an organization. Again, many decisions will have to be made.
• Can you operate with existing equipment and pilots? As a drone program grows more equipment as well as additional trained and licensed pilots will likely be required. Be mindful that keeping uniformity to the drone fleet will yield much efficiency.
• Do you have the requisite survey resources? If you are adding topographic mapping, you will certainly need to place and measure ground control points. Be sure that you have the correct equipment and domain expertise.
• Reporting the results. Again, be sure you understand who the stakeholders are and how they like to receive the data files. Some prefer .pdf files sent via email while others want to view reports on a cloud portal.
• Quality assurance / Quality control. Nothing can ruin a fledging drone program as quickly as lack of user confidence in the accuracy of the reported data. Be sure to build the requisite quality control checks into all processes.
• Storing the data. Do you have the requisite IT systems in place to handle the growing files? As raw drone image files and the resulting processed files are quite large, both data storage as well as internet bandwidth will quickly become constrained.
While there are clearly many potential benefits to be derived from a successful enterprise drone program, it is critical to recognize, hopefully in advance, many of the challenges to doing it right, with accuracy, consistency, safety, scalability and repeatability. Proper planning and good execution will certainly yield increased productivity and safety while concurrently reducing costs.