Drone survey tech investments take off

The growth of drone-based surveying technology has taken another leap forward this week, with two major investment moves announced on Monday.

Mining computer tech company Maptek has decided to jump on the airborne surveying bandwagon, having made a significant investment in an Adelaide-based start-up, DroneMetrex .

Dronemetrex has developed an innovative new system, for aerial photogrammetric mapping from a small drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Topodrone-100.

Dronemetrex managing director Tom Tadrowski would not disclose the exact nature of the investment, instead telling Australian Mining that the Topodrone-100 is a significantly more accurate system than other UAV mapping systems on the market.

“We’ve built a mapping system from the ground up, everything is designed for the drone from the start,” Tadrowski said.

“Other companies are building drones and then putting mapping systems in them, but no-one’s ever going to be able to do it properly that way,” he said.

“We design the whole system to be the same as DGPS, with real time, kinematic surveying… we’re getting elevation accuracy of 25mm, but we’ve actually been getting better than that.

“Our competitors are getting about half a metre to a metre accuracy, although they’ll try to tell you different, but no-one will do it with their hand on their heart.”

The Topodrone-100 weighs 2.5kg, with a total payload of 5kg, is battery powered with endurance up to 60 minutes, and has a catapult launching system.

Announced on the same day, Swedish measurement and design group Hexagon has acquired the drone manufacturer Aibotix.

Hexagon has made the acquisition in order to complement the Life of Mine solution put out by Leica Geosystems.

The jewel in the Aibotix crown is the Aibot X6, a six-blade rotor system or ‘hexacopter’, representing a new generation of vertical take-off and landing UAVs that will be used to implement aerial mine mapping through the Life of Mine software.

Hexagon president and CEO Ola Rollen said the growing number of applications for UAV-based solutions offers huge growth potential.

“The Aibotix acquisition is an important addition to Hexagon’s photogrammetric and mapping technologies portfolio,” he said.

Within the mining industry, drones can typically be used for surveying and mapping on site, however new uses for them such as aerial real time truck fleet management, site and remote infrastructure monitoring, and machinery tracking are all being developed. 

The recent investments this week show that more than a few companies have been watching the progress of drone tech sector, and one such company is consulting and technology firm Accenture.

Accenture’s mining program and project manager Nigel Court is a strong proponent for the use of drone technology in the mining industry.

Using drones is “a more efficient process, and can produce more real time information in a much safer manner than getting surveyors out on the site,” Court stated.

Court predicts a spike in the use of drones for minesite applications in Australia, linking this to the increase of remote operation centres currently seen, as both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto develop their own remote control centres thousands of kilometres from their operations throughout the Pilbara. 

Outlining the mine of future, circa 2020, he stated that drones are likely to be playing an integral role right across the value chain, both on and offsite, delivering value in the areas of exploration and development, safety and security and operational productivity.

He went on to provide a unique example of time savings when using automated drones over workers.

“Imagine there was an issue on the rail line in the Pilbara, from the time the problem is identified to getting the worker out there to see the cause of the issue through to getting someone out there to solve it, it could be three hours or more, whereas if a drone is flown over it can reach the site in less than half an hour, take high resolution photos that can be used to identify the problem, after which someone can be sent out to fix out the problem,” he said.

“It also has the ability to take high resolution, time lapse pictures of a site to see if fractures have appeared in the rock faces over time for early detection so that it removes much of the risk and increases safety on site.”

With drones and UAVs already seeing some use in surveying, the likelihood of this avenue of their use is only set to expand. 

“The possibilities for the application of drones in mining are seemingly endless with new uses coming to light every week and more widespread utilisation being reported across the industry,” Court said.

“We see potential benefits across the value chain, from safety and security (search & rescue, monitoring / providing information from dangerous and difficult locations) to exploration  and development (such as aerial photography and remote sensing) and productivity (stockpile mapping, mine mapping & reconciliation and time lapse photography) just to name a few.

“Leading mining businesses are rapidly making these kinds of capabilities available through their use and customisation of drones. Turning these ideas into results of course requires coordinated planning across the value chain and focused execution. While we are likely on the front side of the hype cycle, we believe these capabilities will continue to mature and will transform the industry.”

 Images: Dronemetrex

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