I am currently attending the 2017 NSSGA/CONEXPO exposition. One of the keynotes from the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) conference focused on the rate of change of technology in the mining industry and the scope of operations that are covered by these technologies. Of course, one of the examples was the use of drones. The gist of the discussion was that some of these technologies are in their formative stages; we do not yet fully appreciate the scope of operational affect they will have but to prosper, knowledge of these systems must be internalized.
One thing is very clear – frequent and repetitive mapping will be required to support the automated machinery that is now appearing on advanced sites. You cannot program a haul truck for autonomous operations if you do not know the location of the road! Complicating this issue is the fact that the road location changes nearly daily due to the operation itself.
This future trajectory says that mine site mapping will need to become an internal operation. It will be impractical from both a logistics and cost perspective to outsource drone mapping services. A second strong consideration is the rapidity with which drone technology is changing. I think amortizing the cost of a drone over more than 12 months is just not realistic.
Drones are simply platforms for cameras and other sensors (for example, profilers, laser scanners and so forth). A drone without a sensor is a fun toy to fly but it is not going to have much use in operations! I am very excited about new platforms from commercial drone companies (mostly DJI). These new drones include decent cameras in that they now incorporate larger sensors and hybrid shutters. You can do a reasonable job of mapping with these yet still use them for inspection videos.
So I think what we are seeing is the beginning of the end of the purpose-built drone. You will be able to purchase drones from DJI (and perhaps others) that are nearly a consumable. You can use the same drone for inspections as you use for mapping. This is a very important consideration since this greatly simplifies the training of users.
The bottom line here is this – we are seeing the beginning of drones as an everyday tool for mining, industry and construction. The proper model is going to be internal control of not only flying the systems but also processing the data. When you need a quick check of a pulley on a conveyor, you will want an internal staff member to quickly fly the inspection job and post the resultant video. No need to have a third-party system or contractor involved. It just complicates the flow and adds expense. This is really the motivation behind our Bring Your Own Drone (BYOD) Mapping Kit. It lets you use a low-cost drone such as the DJI Inspire to do serious mapping without a lot of complicated leasing or outsourced data processing arrangements. It also allows you to use the same platform for inspection that you use for mapping. Give us a call to see how well this solution will meet your specific needs.
We spent a lot of time in November and December of last year (2016) developing a coherent strategy for our AirGon business. As you know from prior newsletters, AirGon LLC is our small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) subsidiary. We have been developing technology for the past three years aimed at implementing and improving sUAS (or, more commonly, drone) high accuracy mapping. Our focus has been in four major areas:
- Hardware for RTK/PPK grade geopositioning (the AirGon Sensor Package)
- Software tools for data processing (Topolyst)
- Reckon, our Amazon Web Services (AWS)-hosted data management and delivery portal
- Workflow best practices for project repeatability
- Production Services for customers who do not want to do their own processing
Addressing the sUAS market is a new challenge for us. There is a surprisingly small overlap between our traditional LIDAR/Photogrammetry marketplace and the new drone business. After a few years in the trenches and hundreds of mapping projects, we are rationalizing our business into three different Partner categories. These are delineated by the type of customer:
Technology Partners – These are customers who purchase technology from us to either use for their own internal operations or to offer services. The technology in our portfolio related to sUAS mapping includes:
- PhotoScan and Pix4D point cloud generation software
- Topolyst, our purpose-built point cloud exploitation tool for data from sUAS Laser Scanners (LIDAR) and/or data from dense image matching
- Bring Your Own Drone (BYOD) Mapping Kit, a collection of software that enables serious mapping with a variety of third party drone hardware from low cost DJI Inspires to professional grade senseFly (eBee) fixed wing drones.
- Reckon, our Amazon Web Services-hosted site data collaboration and delivery portal. Reckon is a subscription product that allows web-based collaboration between the service provider and end user (who may be one and the same)
- Various hardware components
- Consulting services, tailored to needs
Network Partners – The AirGon Network program is an emerging part of our AirGon business. It comprises drone mapping services experts who use our technology for data capture, processing and delivery. Network Partners always interact with their AirGon Network client base via Reckon. We offer regular best practices training, exposure to end-use customers and referrals. We can also provide data processing services to those who wish to focus only on flying. This is a program that requires qualification.
Enterprise Partners – These are end use customers of drone mapping services. An AirGon Enterprise Partner can be as small as a single stockpile yard to as large as a multi-national mining company. Enterprise partners generally engage with us via our CONTINUUM concept, a model that allows a customer to tailor a drone mapping solution that exactly fits their desired business model. For customers who wish to do their own data collection, we offer subscription-based back office processing services. For customers who want to outsource data collection and processing, we link Network partners who are the best match for the desired services and locations.
Please get in touch with use (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are serious about high accuracy drone mapping – we would love to work with you!