Drones get a lot of press these days. Whether it’s former US President Barack Obama’s controversial embrace of drones as military technology, Jeff Bezos’ attempts to get his Amazon drone delivery project off the ground, or opulent drone racing championships in Dubai, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But how can they be used in the mining world? There has already been some implementation, and drones have found an abundance of uses, such as haul road optimisation analysis, stockpile checks, slurry line and tailing dam inspection, site security and emergency response. So how can the industry go one further? That’s where Airobotics steps in.
An ambitious Israeli start-up bolstered by a slick marketing campaign — its product trailer, with its Hans Zimmer-esque music wouldn’t feel out of place in the new Blade Runner — Airobotics is attempting to beat its competition through the use of pilotless drones, a nascent technology on which the company is betting big. Having recently secured approval from the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (the first pilotless drone firm to do so), Airobotics is looking 12,000km from home to bolster support from the Australian mining industry as its next step on the road to international success.
The company’s UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), called Optimus, is completely autonomous; it uses a 2.2 metre tall, 2.6 tonnes weatherproof Airbase as a dock from which it can both launch and land without operator input. Airobotics hopes that through the elimination of pilots, not only will the end-user save money in the long term, but time as well, since the company’s UAV doesn’t need to eat, rest or indulge in any other such human proclivities.
Airobotics is currently working with five Tier 1 Australian mining companies on the project, having recently set up a local office in Perth for business development and operational research and development (R&D); Nov will run a team of 20 people — mostly locals — by the end of the year.
“Israel is an amazing place to develop, but it is a very small country with not a lot of industrial business opportunities,” explains Yahel Nov, vice president of business development at Airbotics. “We looked across the globe, did a whole lot of flying around and decided we wanted to focus on the mining industry.
“After looking at all the different mining clusters in the world, Australia stood out as the most appealing opportunity for us.”
Nov states that the newly developed Perth office will run tests on any newly developed sensors to assess client suitability by returning reports to Airobotics in Israel to iterate on the technology as per request. It is a process that should hopefully expedite the company’s operations on a technical, as well as business, level.
Impressively, the UAV can also have its modules changed with the aid of a mechanical robotic arm inside the Airbase; there is a space in the UAV’s fuselage so that components can quickly swapped out with different parts for different situations, including live feed cameras, 3D modelling, thermal imaging and LiDAR applications.
At the risk of sounding reductive, the process shares some similarities at a glance with the modularity of the fictional Thunderbird 2 VTOL aircraft from Thunderbirds, which could likewise swap out its fuselage with myriad situational gadgetry; here, seemingly, is a slice of science-fiction childhood writ large in 2017.
It’s a compact thing too, perhaps too small to accommodate one of the aforementioned show’s trademark puppets. The UAV itself is 179 cm tip to tip, weighs 7kg and is capable of carrying a 1kg payload. It is capable of flying in wind at up to 30 knots and has a 30-minute flight time, which Airobotics is trying to push the limits and extend.
Each Airbase can be equipped with up to nine modules (payloads) and 12 batteries at present, and there are plans to expand on this number in future, particularly as sensors become smaller and lighter over time. Some applications also make use of multiple data layers as per client needs, so, for example, you could combine normal imagery or video with thermal imagery or video.
“We have a unique ability to automatically replace the sensors on a drone so we can create a diversified data flow for our client with just one drone,” explains Nov. “In a sense you become a multi-tool because you can now collect a variety of data for various purposes.”
I ask Nov if he has encountered any negative reception to the project, particularly given the increasing automation of the industry and its potential effect on jobs. According to a recent report from strategist and consulting firm AlphaBeta, the rapid integration of AI technology into the workforce could affect up to 3 million Australian workers by 2030, and construction and mining labour jobs rank highest on the list at 86 per cent susceptibility to automation.
“Not at all — I think it’s been the opposite,” he replies. “We’re not replacing anybody, as we’re replacing things that weren’t getting done. You still need the same line of people but now they’ll be able to do so much more; it puts them out of danger and gives them a much more powerful sense of ownership.”
We will likely hear much more from Airobotics over the next year as it continues its ambitious plans for expansion — first Israel, then Australia, and finally the world. Nov is enthusiastic about his move to Perth and the opportunities it could bring for his company.
“It’s a great country,” says Nov, who studied and worked in Canada for eight years. “From what I can see now, I think we made the right decision in coming here. It’s a combination of business opportunities — we’ve got smart people who know how to deploy technology correctly, that’s maybe the most important part of it.
This article also appears in the November edition of Australian Mining.