Opening Australian skies to Australian mines

DroneDeploy’s expertise in drone aerial data services is transforming the way mine sites are operated and maintained as the company now takes flight in Australia. Nickolas Zakharia writes.

The world is in a vastly different space to where it was 12 months ago.

With social distancing the new norm for at least the remainder of the year, major industries are looking for different ways to enhance workflows and improve efficiencies.

Drones were already on their way to becoming a highly utilised technology in mining prior to the pandemic, but this year’s unprecedented events have elevated their status as a necessity to many operations where workers are not allowed on site.

With the arrival of Industry 4.0’s datacentric technologies and digital solutions, DroneDeploy’s platform-as-a-service has landed in Australia.

DroneDeploy offers various industries a user-friendly platform that improves workflows using drone data, including image processing, data storage, 3D models and real-time sharable drone maps – all accessible remotely via the cloud.

Since its founding in 2013, DroneDeploy has introduced the world to an abundance of solutions made possible with drone technology.

With a local DroneDeploy office opening in Sydney, the company has its sights set on strengthening its presence in the Asia Pacific region.

“Australia-New Zealand is the fastest growing region for DroneDeploy internationally speaking,” DroneDeploy Asia Pacific general manager Adam Savage tells Australian Mining.

“We’re building the foundation for the future operations here regionally and are really excited about the opportunity within this market.

“With the advent of more insights required in order to reduce risk and increase operational efficiency, this is driving us to that next wave of innovation.

“Industry 4.0 is the next level of efficiency and operational best practice that you can continue to drive in your field of operations. And ultimately, I think that we’re well positioned to augment that notion and actually lead the market from a platform perspective.”

Co-founders Mike Winn, Jono Millin and Nicholas Pilkington first created DroneDeploy to combat poaching in South Africa. The company has since grown into a global enterprise, with more than 200 countries using its drone software worldwide.

DroneDeploy acts as the catalyst for developers, hardware partners and pilots to support operations across mining and other industries, with its customers mapping over 150 million acres and helping support 400,000 job sites with drone technology.

In mining, DroneDeploy can enhance planning, excavation, stockpile management, maintenance and safety.

“We enable mining companies to get a wider, three dimensional perspective of the environment in a safer, at height way,” Savage says.

“We aim to reduce downtime by reporting progress and efficiently managing your logistics. Effectively you’re visualising and measuring these paths to success and making sure that all of your systems and processes are kept running in the field of operations.”

DroneDeploy also has the ability to accurately measure mining assets that traditionally rely on estimates from an operator in the field, such as resource stockpile estimates. Savage says they have historically not been as reliable or time urgent as desired.

“We enable those workers to be removed out of harm’s way and DroneDeploy allows the drone to go into what may be considered even more hazardous situations – but safely,” Savage explains

By implementing machine learning, DroneDeploy has enabled its software to help organisations automatically detect when maintenance is required.

“With machine learning you can take images of what is a piece of equipment in good condition,” Savage says. “So, when you get a piece of equipment that’s corroded you can automatically identify the differences, and act on remediation procedures in near real-time.”

The company describes drones as the ideal ‘socially distant worker,’ providing an eye in the sky for operations when a workforce is forced to operate remotely.

This notion has been emphasised throughout COVID-19, as drone demand has grown with an industry that is well aware of the risk a global pandemic poses to business operations, not to mention numerous on-site hazards that are ever-present.

“Thousands of companies were forced to navigate the widespread shutdowns when the pandemic hit, so for those that were using drones, they found they could still carry on,” Savage says.

“The socially distant field operatives (drones) need to be managed like human beings. But now we can continue to go on site and map, we don’t need to bring a whole lot of folks in.”

While there is a growing interest and enthusiasm from the Asia Pacific market for drone and data-focussed technologies in the mining industry, privacy concerns over data remain an issue. DroneDeploy, however, has pledged to keep customer data secure and private.

“This is about us offering your data to your processes, opposed to thinking your data is somehow now our data. It’s a big change in thinking – especially in the mining industry,” Savage says.

“I think the way the market is responding is they’re saying, ‘I get it, I understand the return of investment and the business case for why unmanned vehicles need to be in our digital transformation in our digital ingestion and input. Now it is about developing robust, standard operating procedures and enterprise grade platform integrations to key systems of record feeding downstream critical in-field processes and procedures.’”

With deep philanthropic roots, DroneDeploy also combines its knowledge with local governments and environmental organisations. The company is working with organisations, such as CSIRO, the Institute of Marine Science and GBRMPA to monitor Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

“Through various channels of enquiry, the government in Australia is excited to speak to us about programs such as those with CSIRO, AIMS and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority, which we play a crucial part in,” Savage says.

“Part of the benefit is in helping understand what’s best practice in building out and scaling a drone operation and bring that knowledge to the market.”

The sky is the limit for the DroneDeploy team, which believes the future will further elevate the possibilities involved with drones and drone data.

“It’s going to be delivered through a number of different ingestion techniques, so a range of robotics, a range of cameras and industry advancements in photography, AI, and so on – all in the aim to eliminate more risk and improve efficiencies,” Savage says.

“The world is losing staff in many, many companies. We’ve got a lot of impact to deal with. And how do you keep the lights on? You have to look at the Industry 4.0 tell-tale signs. And I think that’s what’s happening.

“Our mission is to make the skies and drone technology accessible to everyone. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to machine learning and figuring out how to leverage the data that drones capture.”

This article also appears in the September issue of Australian Mining.

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