Drone company Airobotics takes flight

Automated drone developer Airobotics has secured several key milestones in the past year. Australian Mining catches up with the company to see what’s next.

Drones have become a talking point of the mining technology world over the past few years.

Utilising LiDAR, photogrammetry, video, and thermal imagery, Airobotics has received significant attention in this arena for an automated drone system that is used for stockpile analytics, tailings dam management, construction management, haul road analytics and more. It also has application for non-mining industries such as oil and gas, construction and ports.

The Israeli company, which serves several Tier 1 miners, is the first to receive flight certification from an aviation body — the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) — for a fully autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) without a human pilot in command.

Airobotics continues to grow its international operations and is securing further regulatory certifications with other aviation groups, including Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and the US-based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The company has Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) certification in Australia.

Airobotics’ drones take off and land autonomously from a 2.2m tall automated base station called the Airbase. The station features a robotic arm that swaps batteries and payloads (such as thermal cameras and LiDAR) to minimise downtime. It also analyses data from flights, which are then sent to site staff.

The company hopes eliminating pilots will not only save the end-user money in the long term, but also increase safety and save significant time.

Airobotics has updated its base drone unit, called Optimus 1, with several enhancements in the last year.

“It was Optimus 1, and now it’s Optimus 1 EX, which stands for extended,” Airobotics vice-president of marketing Efrat Fenigson tells Australian Mining at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) conference in Melbourne.

“We have optimised the battery life. With our engineers we were able to extend the time the drone flies from 25 minutes to 40 minutes per mission.

“We’ve also increased the range that the drone can fly around the docking station, so where it used to be three to four kilometres radius, we can now double or triple that with the addition of communication masts.”

The Airbase has also been upgraded, including an external kill switch and additional safety sensors (including fire detection). The Airbase also has a self-cleaning mechanism which uses air pressure to blow dust off the drone and internal shelving.

“We also added some sensors near the robotic arm to indicate the situation of the drones. Imagine, there is a camera looking at the drone to tell the robotic arm if the props are at the right angle or not,” says Fenigson.

“It’s the beginning of the AI process for the Airbase — we are teaching it about the drone.”

Airobotics opened its first Australian office in Perth last year and its first in the United States in Scottsdale, Arizona in September.

The company has secured a number of coups in 2018; in its latest funding round held in October — the fourth since public launch in June 2016 — Airobotics raised $US30 million ($42.2 million) to push its total capital to $US101 million.

Airobotics has also received attention in the major tech press in the last two years, appearing in publications such as Wired in March 2017 and Fast Company’s 2018 list of the most innovative companies in Israel.

In June 2018, just two years after launching, Airobotics appeared in a Wall Street Journal list as one of the top 25 tech companies to watch.

In addition, the company appointed ex-Facebook and Google executive Richard Wooldridge as chief operating officer. Wooldridge, a former investor in Airobotics, joined the company at the beginning of 2018.

He is primarily known for his work at Google and Facebook’s respective hardware labs, Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) and Building 8.

“[Wooldridge is] our champion for anything operational, manufacturing, supply chain — he’s a master in the industry. The connections he brings, the investor relations…he’s a very senior figure,” Fenigson says.

“The guy was responsible for millions of smartphones for Google, and Nook for Barnes & Noble. He’s a hardware professional and has a great understanding of how to scale hardware operations.”

Woodridge is helping the company to outsource its manufacturing to partners so Airobotics can focus on the data and applications sides of the business rather than the manufacturing process.

Airobotics has partnered with Flex — incidentally another company Wooldridge used to work for — to manufacture its Airbases. The drones are developed in-house by Airobotics, but the company eventually plans to outsource this as well.

The company is working with Vale in New Caledonia and BHP in Arizona with the company’s closed mine sites business unit.

“They have selected us to provide services at their closed mine sites and we operate in “San Manuel” in Arizona. They have 16 sites that are closed in the US and they have to continue monitoring them regularly due to environmental regulations,” says Fenigson.

“Obviously, they want as few people as possible on the site because they aren’t operational, so that model of remotely operated unit was a good fit for them so we are now proving that with the site at San Manuel.”

Airobotics, from Petah Tikva to Perth to New Caledonia to Arizona and beyond, looks set to fly even further in 2019.

 

This article appears in the December 2018 issue of Australian Mining.