For the last few years the many benefits of industrial drones have been touted, particularly for industries such as mining, but with automated drones now flying for mining companies in Israel and surveying and mapping capabilities constantly improving, we are now actually reaching the point where industrial drones are beginning to live up to their heavy hype.
The innovators and early adopters who are putting this technology to work are poised to shoot to the forefront of their industries while everyone else, well, they might be wondering just what drones can do when it comes to dangerous and onerous tasks like surveying and how it gets accomplished.
If ever there were a task made to be handled entirely by drones instead of human employees, surveying would be it. Not only does surveying take a tremendous amount of time for traditional surveyors to complete, often interrupting business processes, but it’s also dangerous for those surveyors to be clambering around in remote locations with harsh conditions, trying to measure points on stockpiles of ore and other shifting materials. All that time, effort and risk for results that might not even be precise enough.
This is why many of the questions concerning drones for mining focus on surveying capabilities. Whether it’s for basic site mapping, stockpile evaluation and asset management or before and after digital elevation modeling, mining companies need to know if drones can truly do it cheaper, better, faster and therefore eliminate the risks posed to traditional land surveyors. To find out, leading producer of automated drones for mining and other industries Airobotics teamed up with Israel Chemicals Ltd. for a joint stockpile evaluation case study. According to the report, using the Airobotics automated drone system resulted in a 1.37% reported stockpile volume difference and a 127% increase in elevation accuracy – all with stockpile evaluation that took a matter of hours instead of days and used over 9 million points compared to traditional surveying’s 360.
It would seem the answer is yes, drones can do it cheaper, better and faster – so long as the right technology is being used as well as the right industrial drone.
For industrial surveying there should be a total of two technologies currently considered: photogrammetry, and light detection and ranging, otherwise known as LiDAR.
Photogrammetry is a technology that captures two-dimensional images that can be analyzed to determine measurements, particularly between surface points, for the purpose of mapping. As a function of an industrial drone, photogrammetry involves the capture and analysis of thousands of aerial images to produce 2D or 3D models.
LiDAR is a technology that illuminates points on a target with pulsed laser lights and measures how long it takes the light to return. The differences in light return time between points is used to make 3D models of the target.
Photogrammetry has long been relied upon for surveying and mapping and it remains a valuable tool for a range of industries. However, LiDAR offers several advantages over photogrammetry, including the ability to work at night or in poor lighting conditions, an increased ability to recognize narrow objects such as power lines, and the ability to penetrate vegetation and tree canopy in order to reach and accurately measure the terrain or objects located below. LiDAR is one of the most accurate surveying tools currently available, but it is also a significantly more expensive technology than photogrammetry at this point in time.
The right (multi)tool
With the impressive multitools being produced by industrial drone companies, there’s no reason for mining companies or any other industrial enterprise to choose between photogrammetry and LiDAR for their surveying needs. Select industrial drones have the ability to use an interchangeable range of sensors and payloads, with applications extending far beyond just surveying into inspections, surveillance, incident response and more. While currently, photogrammetry may be the cost-effective choice for some companies, investing in a multitool leaves the option open to upgrade to LiDAR when a lighter and more cost-efficient payload becomes available.
Another major consideration needs to be data processing capability, as data capture is a mere half the battle when it comes to surveying. There’s no time or cost savings to be had if human employees are stuck dealing with the incredible amount of aerial data taken in by an industrial drone. To produce precise models and maps quickly to inform and improve business processes, an industrial drone needs impressive automated data processing powers as well as a huge range of compatible software.
To truly capitalize on the innovation of industrial drones and realize the fullest possible cost and time savings, companies should be looking at the automated industrial drone offerings to have those sensors and payloads swapped automatically (along with the power supply), to eliminate the significant expense, delay and potential for human error that comes with the need for a human pilot, and to have access to the best and most comprehensive selection of software and data processing capabilities. What starts as a commitment to improved surveying might just lead to your company playing a leading role in the next industrial revolution.